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In Independence, Leila's Hair Museum collects intricate art woven from thousands of heads

Suzanne Hogan and Crysta Henthorne
KCUR 89.3

Since 1956, Leila Cohoon has collected and preserved hair art and jewelry — not art or jewelry that goes in a person's hair, but art and jewelry made of the hair itself. "Her interest in these objects helped actually literally save them from being destroyed," one historian says.

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It was 1956 in Kansas City. Leila Cohoon had just left her job at a salon to find some new shoes for Easter on the Country Club Plaza.

And then she saw an object in the window of an antique store that would change her life. A little woven wreath in a gold frame — hair art.

She continued on to the shoe store, but her mind remained on the piece.

"What if somebody gets to it before I do?" Cohoon remembers thinking. "And I got up and ran out of that shoe store."

Cohoon has had a lifelong relationship with hair, both as a cosmetologist and as a collector of what now seem like very unusual crafts.
Since that day in 1956, she's collected hair art and jewelry — not art or jewelry that goes in a person's hair, but art and jewelry made of the hair itself.

Eventually, she gathered so many pieces, she says she couldn't take care of them anymore.

"I had to find a room to put them in. And not only that, but I wanted to share them with people, because it was so interesting," Cohoon says.

And that's how Leila's Hair Museum in Independence, Missouri, was born.

"Her interest in these objects helped actually literally save them from being destroyed," historian Helen Sheumaker says of Cohoon.

Credit Anne Kniggendorf / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
A closer look at one of the wreaths in the Hair Museum collection.

Sheumaker, who teaches at the University of Miami in Ohio, has long been interested in hair art as well. She's even written a book about it, called "Love Entwined: The Curious History of Hairwork in America."

For the longest time — the Middle Ages through the 1700s — hair art was seen as a way to memorialize the dead. Like keeping a lock of hair, except instead of just a chunk tied with ribbon, it's made into an item that can be displayed or worn.

Then, Sheumaker says, around the time of Napoleon, people started seeing a different potential in the items.

"It was a fashion item with the sentiment attached. So the real idea was that you would have the hair of a loved one, or your own hair, worked fairly elaborately into a jewelry that you would wear," she says.

By the 1800s in the United States and Europe, people were giving hair décor to family and friends as gifts.

Sheumaker understands the attraction. Once hair is separated from a person, it’s still something personal and specific to him or her that doesn’t fade or change the way a photo or item of clothing does over time.

Credit Anne Kniggendorf / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
This item was the first piece in Leila Cohoon's hair art colletion.

"And as [Cohoon’s] collection shows, for centuries it will be largely unaffected by time, which is exactly why Victorians saw hair as a living link between themselves and those who had passed," Sheumaker says.

Bridget Grams, a hair restoration specialist at The Museum of the Very Strange in Pennsylvania, agrees with the Victorians.

"The thought of running your hand through your lover's hair. The lock of hair belonging to your child. It's a chance to hold onto that person," Grams says. "Every strand of hair is one more second, one more breath, one more word that they're still with you on this earth." 

Attitudes have changed. Many people today might shudder to think of decorating with human hair, even their own.

Sheumaker says that shift happened in the late 1800s with the discovery of germs.

"So even though this has very little to do with hairwork, the association of bodily debris and germs and the ways in which people began to think of cleanliness in the home changed," Sheumaker says.

Credit Suzanne Hogan / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Leila Cohoon has created a community of 21st century hair artists from around the world.

No argument or misguided notion has deterred Leila Cohoon, whose name is pronounced "lee-EYE-luh." Her interest in and passion for collecting the pieces hasn't slowed at all since the time she saw a little gold-framed hair wreath in an antique store on the Plaza in 1956.

She now has nearly 3000 items.

"In fact, I've got a room I’m starting to fill up. I've got another 150 or so that I haven’t really told my husband about," Cohoon says.

Credit Suzanne Hogan / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Leila demonstrated techniques for hair wreath making at the convention.

She reverse-engineered several of the works and wrote an instructional book on the craft called "Hair: the Lost Art of Hair Wreath Making."

She also teaches classes and has hosted the Victorian Hair Workers International Convention, which recently drew about 15 participants from across the country to her small space in Independence, Missouri.

The convention included history talks and tutorials on the very tricky craft. Bridget Grams was one of the organizers and helped teach the workshops.

Gina Iacovelli travelled from South Carolina to participate and learn from Grams and Cohoon.

She thinks of the art as going back to the Buddhist concept of memento mori — that is, remembering one's own mortality.

Credit Suzanne Hogan / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Keepsakes were made during the Victorian era with photos of children and strands of their hair woven into intricate patterns.

"You know, thinking a little bit on death each day. Not dwelling there, of course, because that's super morbid," Iacovelli says. "And nobody wants to think about their loved ones dying, but just realizing that life is precious."

Whether it's new hair or old hair, Cohoon's attitude is that it's "somebody's family ... it should be preserved. It should be put out on the wall where other people can share it."

Every part of the present has been shaped by actions that took place in the past, but too often that context is left out. As a podcast producer for KCUR Studios and host of the podcast A People’s History of Kansas City, I aim to provide context, clarity, empathy and deeper, nuanced perspectives on how the events and people in the past have shaped our community today. In that role, and as an occasional announcer and reporter, I want to entertain, inform, make you think, expose something new and cultivate a deeper shared human connection about how the passage of time affects us all. Reach me at hogansm@kcur.org.
Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
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