Hair by Sam McKnight is a cool, fun fashion exhibition that demonstrates how hair is a key component in the creation of fashion looks and iconic images. And central to that world is Sam McKnight. This is a man who has collaborated on some of the most famous fashion shoots, worked with some of the biggest names, and has been a pioneer behind some of the biggest hair trends of the past forty years.
Somerset House has put on a dynamic show. Catwalk videos and behind-the -scenes footage of Sam and his assistants frantically working on the phalanx of models about to walk for the biggest names mix it up with fashion photography, music videos and glamour mannequins.
It’s a great sensory overload and gives a true sense of the many outlets and fields in which Sam has worked, from the frenzy of fashion catwalks to the intensity of studio shoots. And It’s all names here, darling, wherever you look. On one wall, there’s Kate and Gisele; on the other it’s Christy and Cara. Further along there’s more Kate plus Linda. A flash of Bjork and Gaga, and a dash of Tilda, a bit more Kate, plus Madonna, Uma, Cate, and even more Kate.
Names, names, names! Glamour, glamour, glamour!
And alongside all the Vogue and Harpers covers, the show also sets aside space to explore Sam’s collaboration with the biggest fashion brands – Chanel and Vivienne Westwood. And it’s a great juxtaposition – the finesses and elegance of Karl Lagerfeld’s Chanel, where the exquisite beading and tailoring is paired with smoothed down locks where there is not a single hair out of place, and all of this refinement is set against the raucous rebellion of Westwood’s punk couture where the hair is as (deliberately) unkempt and untamed as the fashion.
(Though I do have to note, the text accompanying the Westwood section of the show, where a forest of mannequins pimped out in Westwood mingle with footage from the Gold Label catwalk shows, does come pretty close to inferring that McKnight ‘made’ Westwood. ‘McKnight helped Westwood establish her reputation as one of world’s leading fashion designers, shaping the looks for collections such as ‘Anglomania..’ etc.
Hey, ease up there, tiger. With the greatest respect in the world to McKnight and whoever wrote that wall text, Westwood only met McKnight in 1992 and, though I’m sure McKnight was useful, Westwood’s fashion legacy was already secured by the 1990s. She had already turned it all upside down by then. And I’m not keen on anyone undermining Westwood’s achievements here.)
But anyway. Above all of these names sits Diana. McKnight was the man for Diana’s hair in that famous British Vogue cover shoot where Diana sits bare-shouldered with just her tiara on, and he was also the man who she turned to to modernise her look in the early 1990s. And when you are part of, well, not just fashion history but a moment of cultural history like that, of course you’re going to blow your own trumpet so there’s a lovely section of the show carved out for Diana.
It all seems to be going so well in the exhibition – it’s fun, it’s cool, these are moments we remember and faces we instantly recognise – and then it hits you: You look around and realise this show is almost completely white. In fact, its whiteness is blinding.
There is minimal representation from Women of Colour at any point in this show. They are almost completely absent. And even on the rare instance you spot such a woman in an image, her hair is as tousled and sleek as a white woman’s. I scoured the show and could only find one small snap of a black model with Afro hair in one of the showcases towards the exit.
Now, whose fault this is, I suppose, is up for debate – does it lie with Sam McKnight for showcasing his work with white models and celebrities, or does the responsibility lie with the fashion industry itself, which is notorious for ignoring or ‘whitening’ women of colour?
Bit of both, perhaps. But either way, the curators of the show should have been far more sensitive to diversity and inclusion. It’s a shame as there is a lot to enjoy here, but once you realise how white it is, it all tarnishes and you realise for all the fun, there’s something very damaging and dangerous about these supposedly cool images.
Somerset House, London, to March 12, 2017
Admission: £13 (concessions available)
Lead image: Kate Moss by Nick Knight, Vogue UK September 2000. Courtesy of Nick Knight.
Installation images all © Peter MacDiarmid, Courtesy Somerset House