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The Secret Lives of Hair

Emma Tarlo

Winner of the Victor Turner Prize for Ethnographic Writing 2017

Journeying around the globe, through past and present, Emma Tarlo unravels the intriguing story of human hair and what it tells us about ourselves and society.

When it’s not attached to your head, your very own hair takes on a disconcerting quality. Suddenly, it is strange. And yet hair finds its way into all manner of unexpected places, far from our heads, including cosmetics, clothes, ropes, personal and public collections, and even food. Whether treated as waste or as gift, relic, sacred offering or product in a billion-dollar industry for wigs and hair extensions, hair has many stories to tell.

Collected from Hindu temples and Buddhist nunneries and salvaged by the strand from waste heaps and the combs of long-haired women, hair flows into the industry from many sources. Entering this strange world, Emma Tarlo tracks hair’s movement across India, Myanmar, China, Africa, the United States, Britain and Europe, meeting people whose livelihoods depend on this singular commodity. Whether its journey ends in an Afro hair fair, a Jewish wig parlour, fashion salon or hair loss clinic, hair is oddly revealing of the lives it touches.

  • Publication date: August 3, 2017
  • ISBN: 9781786071613
  • RRP: £10.99
  • Pages: 416
  • Publication date: October 6, 2016
  • ISBN: 9781780749921
  • RRP: £16.99
  • Pages: 416
  • Publication date: October 6, 2016
  • ISBN: 9781780749938
  • RRP: £5.99
  • Pages: 320


‘Tarlo is excellent at elucidating the vanity, money, pain and revulsion that unattached hair can represent. Think you know hair? You’ll never see it in the same way again.’


‘If you’re curious about your roots, you’ll enjoy exploring UK anthropology professor Emma Tarlo’s Entanglement a brilliant, comprehensive Baedeker to the billion dollar global hair trade.’


‘By turns surprising, unsettling and disturbing but never anything less than absorbing…weaving in history, politics and science in an interlocking, mesmerising narrative that seems wholly appropriate to the subject’.

Literary Review

‘Brilliant...Entanglement tracks its subject doggedly through an almost infinite number of twists and turns.’

Times Literary Supplement

Entanglement is dense with colourful characters and startling, unexpected information, which makes it both exhausting and delightful. Tarlo brings a lovely open-mindedness and a deadpan sense of humour to her writing.’

New York Times Book Review

‘Tarlo uses an ethnographer’s eye to analyse the religious, social, cultural and commercial forces that drive the industry. Yet her book reads like a travelogue as we follow her through the temple towns of India, the hair factories of China, the sorting sheds of Myanmar and the salons of Europe and Britain… By employing an anecdotal yet vigorously researched approach, Tarlo succeeds in untangling a knotty topic while keeping the reader engaged through 400-plus pages. The result is a fascinating and authoritative work.’

John Zubrzycki, The Australian

‘Interesting – and, at times strange’.


'Clever, idiosyncratic…lively…full of amusing, “fancy that” information and arresting observations…what a rich subject Tarlo has chosen for her book’.

New Statesman

‘Wonderful…it’s not often a book gives you new eyes for your everyday world’.

The Oldie

‘I had no idea that a non-fiction book about hair could be quite so fascinating’.

The Pool

‘The questions she examines and the “secret lives of hair” that she exposes are fascinating… An engrossing investigation.’

Library Journal, starred review

‘I will never think about hair the same way after reading Emma Tarlo’s brilliant, fascinating book!’

Valerie Steele, author of The Corset: A Cultural History, and director and chief curator, The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology

Emma Tarlo

Author page

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