The global hair trade weaves a tangled web in our cultural consciousness, intertwining North American, European, East Asian, Indian, and African histories. Although often dismissed as a part of frivolous beauty regimes, hair conjures up personal and political issues, says Dr. Esther Berry, a feminist and cultural studies scholar whose innovative transnational perspective on the cultural politics of the global hair trade has garnered her a coveted two-year postdoctoral fellowship at Ryerson University with funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). Dr. Berry’s timely and critical forays into global culture unravel a complex imperial history of traded human hair used for wigs and other enhancements. From the East India Company’s early trade guidelines categorizing hair alongside imperial silks and cottons, to racist rhetoric regarding Chinese hair imports in Edwardian periodicals, Dr. Berry critically illuminates the importance of regimes of beauty to imperial projects, raising poignant questions about how mundane body parts and fashion accessories are entangled in gendered and political relationships between valid and invalid. The research, which advances cultural, feminist, and postcolonial studies, will be published in a book with McGill-Queen’s University Press, which has issued an advance contract.
Dr. Berry, who completed her doctoral studies in the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry at the University of Sydney in Australia, is keen to begin her Ryerson postdoctoral research by building on Ryerson’s infrastructure and resources. As she notes: “With its extensive library of modernist-era periodicals and its strong mandate to advance women’s cultural heritage, the Modern Literature and Culture (MLC) Research Centre is ideal for undertaking this research.” Dr. Berry hopes to curate an exhibition of commemorative hair ornaments in the MLC Gallery, and to keep building the MLC’s international reach, describing her fellowship as “a rare opportunity to better study the uncharted history of the hair commodity, building international connections through visits to special collections and archives worldwide.”
This research will be supervised by MLC Director Dr. Irene Gammel, who says: “We are delighted to welcome Dr. Berry, who comes to us with an exciting international background and focus on culture. She will find a perfect home for her research in the MLC, the English Department, and the School of Fashion. Her focus on hair and cultural theorizing will contribute to Ryerson’s interdisciplinary focus, and her plans for a colloquium on the importance of fashion for preserving women’s histories will make a vibrant contribution to the MLC’s advancement of cultural studies within a global context.” Dr. Berry will also benefit from the resources of the Ryerson Fashion Research Collection, which houses nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century hairpieces – one of the only North American university-based archival facilities to preserve these cultural artifacts.
Dr. Berry is one of only 183 scholars out of over 800 applicants to have been awarded a SSHRC postdoctoral fellowship in 2015. Her scholarship transforms the way we understand our bodies and the world around us by repositioning the hair commodity as the nexus of histories of gender, race, class, and culture.
Image credit: Among the works explored in Dr. Berry’s cultural study are the haunting mourning portraits of Loren Schwerd made in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. To commemorate its losses, the artist gathered human hair extensions that had spilled out of an African-American beauty supply shop in New Orleans’ worst-hit neighbourhood, the Lower Ninth Ward. 1317 Charbonnet St. is one of these memorial hair sculptures, shaped in the form of a ghostly house. The image is used courtesy of the artist.
The MLC Research Centre welcomes expressions of interests: Visiting Scholars, Visiting Doctoral Students, and as well as support for Postdoctoral Fellowship applications; please contact us with a query letter and your CV at email@example.com