Leila's Hair Museum
Former hairdresser Leila Cohoon was a friend of Ronald Reagan and Oliver North, is a current member of the Missouri Board of Cosmetology, and is an avid collector of hair. "I've always been fascinated by hair," she says. "It's my profession. I started in 1949 and I've loved every minute of it."
As a professional, Leila hasn't been all that interested in giant hairballs or the hair of famous people (though one corner of her museum displays strands snipped from Abe Lincoln and Marilyn Monroe). Her fascination is with hair as art, especially the intricate wreathes of hair, set in frames, that frequently decorated Victorian homes. "People don't know what to expect when they see the sign out front," she says of her museum, but this is a serious collection, with little that we would describe as hair-larious. If were we that lame.
After years of piling her hair art under her bed and in her closets, Leila opened the Hair Museum in a small room in her cosmetology school in 1989.
The collection eventually outgrew that space as well, and Leila, a practical businesswoman, simply rented an office a couple of blocks away in a business park. As such, there's is no museum "design" at Leila's Hair Museum; it's a couple of rooms with four walls covered floor-to-ceiling with hair art. The fluorescent light isn't flattering, but it doesn't hurt the hair. "Hair is indestructible," says Leila, with the tone of someone who knows it.
Hundreds of framed examples fill the walls; most are at least a hundred years old. One was assembled from the hair of every member of a chapter of the League of Women Voters. Two were made from the hair of sisters whose heads were shorn when they entered a convent. A third is a woman convict's "hair diary;" all of her prison visitors had to bring her hair.
Most of the others have similarly odd stories. An otherwise unspectacular example is a sentimental favorite -- the first one that Leila collected in 1956. "My husband says it's the most expensive one in the entire place."
Leila tells us that most people mistakenly believe that hair art is a morbid memorial, taken from the heads of the dead (She believed that herself before she researched the practice). In fact, the hair was clipped from the heads of people who were very much alive. "It was a way of keeping track of families, before the camera was invented," Leila tells us. "We still have the habit of saving hair when Baby gets that first haircut. We don't know why, but at least we have the habit."
The braided hair wreaths are the main attraction at the Hair Museum, but Leila has other human hair art on display, including hair that's been added to portraits and post cards ("I think that might be a German thing."). Particularly creepy are portraits with hair glued to baby heads -- dead infants, perhaps? No, Leila says -- she points out that the dozen she has on display seem to be using the same couple of basic baby images, as if it was a commercially printed hair-by-numbers craft project.
There's hair that's been made into rings, watch fobs, bracelets, necklaces, earrings, chains, brooches, hat pins, bookmarks, and corsages. "I didn't know until 10 or 15 years ago that they made buttons out of human hair," Leila tells us, as if everybody already knew that.
Leila also proudly shows us her latest discovery: an old engraving that appears to be a finely cross-hatched pen and ink illustration. She owned it for years, and just liked it, but one day she took it out of its frame and on close inspection realized it was painstakingly created with pulverized hair. A thing like that can shatter your view of how the real world is constructed. Are other things really just made of hair? The Mona Lisa? Cars? People?
Most of the exhibits don't have labels -- Leila is still working on those -- so it pays to call ahead to find out if she'll be here when you visit. Leila is an enthusiastic, inexhaustible encyclopedia of all hair knowledge and will give you all of the details, even in areas not directly related to the Museum. "Hair and fingernails tell a lot," she explained. "When I started dressing hair in 1949, a woman was at least 36 years old before I saw her first white hair. I taught for ten years, I moved it down to 26. I taught another ten, moved it down to 16. I taught another ten, I moved it down to 5- to 9-year-olds today. So -- [it's the] degeneration of the human race. We're living longer, but the quality's not there."
We forgot ourselves, and asked Leila if she was describing "Hairmageddon." Leila laughed. "When I look at hair, I see more than hair," she said. "My museum is filled with other people's families. It tells a story, but there's a lot more story that I won't be able to know 'till I get to the other side and meet them."