Whether it is a punkish crop or bouncing curls, Somerset House’s new exhibition focuses on the man behind the 20th Century’s most iconic styles. From Princess Diana’s slicked back crop to Agnes Deyn’s white bob, Sam McKnight is the man behind hairs most enduring pop culture moments. A session hairstylist from Scotland, McKnight has defined the cultural zeitgeist through numerous Vogue covers and his work with photographer Patrick Demarchelier, Karl Lagerfeld and Vivienne Westwood. When women sink into the salon chair and point at glossy magazine pullouts, it is his hairstyles they seek to emulate.
Somerset Houses’ Hair diverts our eyes away from the buttery, beautiful faces of supermodels and the atmospheric editing of photographers to one of our most human elements. ‘It’s an exhibition about hair itself, not about pictures of hair’ says McKnight, ‘I wanted it to feel alive.’
To draw attention to the materiality of the subject, exhibition curator Shonagh Marshall has smattered pastel pink hair bows, Lichtenstein yellow wigs and matted hair pieces around the walls of the exhibition.
Hair begins with McKnight’s arsenal of tools. Inside a five-tier Perspex box are the straightening tongs, combs, pins and rollers of modern hair care. It reminds me of my last trip to Tony and Guy except everything is turbo-charged, a powerful shape-shifter kit armed and ready to tame the most straggled of hair.
As you move into the first room, video recordings filmed on a go-pro illustrate what goes on backstage at a Fendi, Dries Van Noten, Chanel and Balmain show. We see the Gigi’s and Kendall’s of the fashion world sat placid in spinney chairs, fiddling away on iPads and drinking Coke whilst McKnight preens, backcombs, sows and smoothes their hair into human sculptures. It is a multimedia experience which places the voyeur right within the chaos of fashion week, we hear panicked soundbites, ‘pass the brush’, ‘up here’, ‘I like this one’.
The next section is a space dedicated to McKnight’s work with Vivienne Westwood. Smattered with silver trees and dramatic stage lighting, the room appears as a post-apocalyptic reimagining of A Midsummer Nights dream.
Manikins are dressed with Westwood’s iconic looks from the electric blue platform heels which Naomi Campbell fell over in at Anglomania S/S to the pink silk and ruffled feathers of Les Femmes. McKnight complements the British colonial punk aesthetic by manikins fuzzy orange wigs with horns and flashes of red. They appear like waifish fairies from another universe.
By robbing the manikins of any human features and explaining the rick-rack pin technique used to create these luminous halos of hair, McKnight directs our gaze to the craftsmanship of hairstyling.
At the end of the exhibition a similar space is devoted to McKnight’s work with Karl Lagerfeld. Framed in the bon-bon pink of Wes Anderson movies, the rippled curtains and monochrome lighting of the Chanel section drowns you in the sticky-sweet world of couture. Here McKnight presents a myriad of styles from an angular black bob to multicoloured dreadlocks. Once again the exhibition shines a light on process. On the walls are Lagerfeld’s sketches of what he wanted McKnight to bring to life.
Hair makes manifest the transformative power of hair by displaying photographs of ex Victoria Secret Angel Karlie Kloss acting out various identities. In the first she looks like an acid-fairy version of Marie Antoinette with hair vertically backcombed in the pouf style, next she appears with a thick black headband and a 60s Bardot-esque bouffant, then she appears with a tousled centre parting like a conventional mega-babe and in the last image she appears with a crimped yellow bob and wonky hat like she has just stumbled out of the Alice and Wonderland rabbit hole.
Just as hair transforms us, so has the mode in which we consume it. Whilst fashion used to be a polished and impenetrable surface which only appeared in periodic fashion shows, now hairstyles that McKnight has sweated over for days can be scrolled through, tapped, liked and discarded. One of Hair’s rooms is consumed with images from @sammcknight1’s Instagram feed which boasts 100,000 followers. Reference is made to the time when McKnight broke the internet by posting the mish-mashed hair colours he did for Balmain, swapping Gigi Hadid’s beach blond to brunette, and Kendal Jenner’s cool brown into peroxide blonde. Through Hair and its celebration of social media platforms, the object of our gaze is reversed from the symmetrical faces of models to the dextrous fingers which frame those faces.
By Annie Lord
Hair by Sam McKnight at Somerset House, Embankment Galleries, South Wing, London WC2R 1LA. 2 November 2016 – 12 March 2017.