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Fifty Sheitels of Grey… I. M. Tznius

Fifty Sheitels of Grey… I. M. Tznius

Emma Tarlo, the author of “Entanglement: The Secret Lives of Hair,” a book about the surprisingly diverting topic of the international hair trade, likes to pin bits of research to her bulletin board. A “frosty cluster of synthetic curls” from Brussels. A “small slither of hair weft” from a floor in Brighton, England. There’s also some human-hair rope from India, fake fuchsia hair from a punk shop in London and a lone black strand (not the author’s own) that she plucked from a Chinese airplane blanket and tucked into her notebook, whereupon, she writes, it sprang out “like an unwanted pubic hair.”

Clearly we’re in the hands of someone who is passionate and possibly slightly unhinged. “Had I become a hair fetishist?” asks Tarlo, an anthropology professor at Goldsmith’s, the University of London. It’s a safe bet that most readers know little or nothing about her subject, the billion-dollar industry that facilitates the movement of hair from the head of one person onto the head of another. “The mass gathering of human hair has always been a backstage business,” the author observes, zipping nimbly across centuries and continents into the dark crevices of her material.

“Entanglement” is dense with colorful characters and startling, unexpected information, which makes it both exhausting and delightful. Tarlo brings a lovely open-mindedness and a deadpan sense of humor to her writing. We meet people who import hair and people who export hair; people who collect hair from the side of the road; people who chop off their hair and post videos of it on hair-selling websites; religious leaders who issue edicts about appropriate wig hair; curators of human-hair collections in museums; workers in Chinese hairpiece factories; hair enthusiasts from the 19th century; and people who, missing all or some of their hair, yearn for that elusive thing, the perfect replacement.

Hair is such a fraught and personal subject. We all wish our hair were different. As Tarlo points out, it’s a means of expression and a means of protest, a cause of upheaval in cultures and friction in families. My friends and I spent a disproportionate amount of our early lives engaged in futile hair-based disputes with our mothers. “How’s your hair?” my own mother has been known to say on the phone, before inquiring about the rest of me. But the emotions generated when a parent informs you that your new hair color makes you look like a prostitute, for instance, are small potatoes when compared with the existential questions explored by the characters in “Entanglement.”

In North London, Tarlo visits a shop selling sheitels, the wigs that some Orthodox Jewish women wear when they get married and their own hair (tucked now out of sight) is considered too intimate and sensual for outsiders’ eyes. “A commandment, a privilege, a burden, an opportunity, a fashion statement and a test of faith,” she says of the wigs. “There is so much projected onto sheitels.”

In Jackson, Miss., Tarlo drops in at the International Hair Show and Expo to get a sense of African-Americans’ feelings about the riot of weaves, wigs, extensions and other hair-altering opportunities on offer. She finds a “mixture of celebration, commercialism, fun, pain, comradeship, competition, opportunity, aspiration, artistry and anxiety.”

In Senegal, she discovers that the wildly fashionable “cheveux naturels” — elaborate hairpieces that are “naturels” only in the sense that they come from the head of a real person who is not yourself — are so ruinously expensive they can lead to marital breakups. “What is natural hair?” she asks. “And why is the culture of transforming it so pervasive that to have natural hair is often perceived as something unnatural?”

If Tarlo’s book goes behind the scenes, showing us the pipes and wires and scaffolding underlying the surface result, then “Hair,” a handsome coffee table book by the celebrity hairdresser John Barrett, looks at the glossy veneers supported by the infrastructure.

Barrett, whose salon occupies the top floor of the Bergdorf Goodman department store on Fifth Avenue, has assembled a witty assortment of iconic styles through the ages, some familiar, others not. True to his personal preoccupation, the hairdressers responsible for the styles are sometimes credited in the captions. (The asymmetric bob of the Commes des Garçons designer Rei Kawakubo, in case you were wondering, is “often maintained by Christiaan.”)

You’ll want mostly to look at the pictures — a shirtless Mick Jagger with lovely shaggy locks in 1975; Mia Farrow’s boyish pixie cut and huge eyes in 1967; Karl Lagerfeld’s 2010 version of his severe gray ponytail; Venus’s swirling 15th-century auburn hair in Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus.” But it’s fun to read the interesting historical snippets and amusing hair-related quotes interspersed throughout the book. My favorite comes from Dolly Parton, and it reverberates with the mysteries Tarlo plumbs in “Entanglement” when she talks about hair being “steeped in personal and social symbolism.”

Here’s Parton, ebullient fan of artifice. “I’m not offended by all the dumb-blonde jokes, because I know I’m not dumb,” she declares, “and I also know that I’m not blond.”

I know the feeling.

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