Stumble in to any hair salon and you’ll see dutiful stylists sweeping up and discarding shorn locks of hair. Little do they know that today’s trash was yesterday’s treasure … according to Leila Cohoon, the owner of Leila's Hair Museum in Independence, Missouri. Cohoon is an expert in the field of hair art.
Founder of the hair museum Leila Cohoon
“I started dressing hair in 1949 and I found my first piece of hair art in 1956. At the time, I had never heard of this art form,” said Cohoon. “I could never believe people would make all these things out of human hair. I bought my first piece of artwork instead of a pair of Easter shoes.”
Since then, she’s amassed more than 2,500 objects woven from human hair – one of the largest collections of its kind in the world. From intricate wreaths to delicate jewelry, if it’s spun with human hair, you’ll find it in Cohoon’s museum.
But why … hair?
A portrait that combines a painted face with real hair
Turns out, long before selfies, hair art was considered a keepsake -- a way of preserving memories. “It’s genealogy done with human hair before the camera was ever invented,” said Cohoon. She has traced the art form back to the 12th century, but it really became a fashion trend a few centuries later thanks to Queen Victoria. Seems the Queen – mourning the death of Prince Albert – wore a bracelet made of his hair. After that, women started creating an unbe-weave-able amount of hair accouterments – from earrings to brooches, necklaces to bookmarks.
This hair art necklace has a floral themed design.
The art form then evolved into elaborate framed wreaths. Mourning wreaths were made from the hair of the deceased. Wedding wreaths were made from the hair of everyone who attended the nuptials. “My favorite piece is the ‘Hurd Family Wreath’”, said Willa Holliger, a tour guide at the Hair Museum. “It contains a record of the entire family – Dad, Mom, Stepmom and eight children … birthdates and death dates. The craftsmanship is just outstanding.”
Museum guide Willa Holliger discusses the backstory behind many of the pieces.
Guests who visit Leila’s Hair Museum are often a little gobsmacked. “They expect to see old curling irons and hairdryers – and they end up seeing an art form,” said Cohoon, who has proudly published a book on her craft, “The Lost Art of Hair Wreath Making”.
“I’m at a loss for words,” said visitor Sonya Edmon Larson. “I had no idea this place existed before today. And it boggles my mind the amount of time and effort that went in to some of these pieces. They’re all so elaborate … and delicate.”
Visitor Sonya Edmon Larson takes a gander at some of the intricate wreaths at the museum.
Cohoon, meanwhile, has become a modern-day Sherlock Combs trying to gather the backstory behind each piece in the museum. But a few remain a mystery. “Some have been donated … and in those cases Leila asks a lot of questions about the history, but people don’t know much about them,” said Holliger. “All that information has been lost. Who made it? Where did it come from? Whose hair does it include? There’s virtually no info.”
The museum – located just a hop, skip and jump from where the Kansas City Chiefs and Kansas City Royals play ball – has been open to the public since 1986 and still sees plenty of foot traffic despite little promotion. “I don’t do any advertising except for postcards,” said Cohoon. “The collection has found me. People contact me.”
For Cohoon, she’s preserving both history and culture … as well as DNA. There are now fewer than 40 people in the United States versed in the design of hair wreaths, but Cohoon is determined not to let the craft become obsolete. “I teach classes in it now. It’s not a lost art like you might read,” said Cohoon -- who often has upcoming classes open to the public.
Want to know more … or get back to your roots? Tour guides are more than willing to answer any hair art-related question – and they’ve likely heard all of them. Well, almost. “One time a child asked, ‘How many strands of hair do you think you have in this museum?’”, said Holliger. “I laughed and said, ‘A lot’.”
Hours: Tuesday – Saturday 9:00 AM – 4:00 PM (Closed major holidays) | SAVE PLACE
Other nearby Fave places:
Harry Truman was a hometown Independence boy and straight-talking Midwesterner who became one of America’s greatest and most beloved presidents. His library has been open to the public since 1957. “This Library will belong to the people of the United States. My papers will be the property of the people and be accessible to them. And this is as it should be. The papers of the Presidents are among the most valuable sources of material for history. They ought to be preserved, and they ought to be used.” -- Harry S. Truman, New York City, May 8, 1954
Located in the heart of the historic Independence Square, you’ll find a surprisingly upscale bistro with lots of carnivorous options. Executive Chef Bobby Stearns has created a menu that has helped put Ophelia’s on the culinary map. It’s destination eating at its finest.
Chef Bobby Stearns.