If you’ve spent any time at all perusing antique jewelry sales or online estate auctions, you’ve probably stumbled across—and been creeped out by—some Victorian hair jewelry. But come back! Don’t be creeped out. It’s not creepy at all—it’s actually an incredibly interesting type of jewelry that teaches us a lot about the way Victorian women understood love, family, and death.
Today we see hair as a slightly gross bit of personal ephemera—no one wants to find a hair in their food, and to find a lock of hair somewhere borders on horrifying. Victorians tended to view hair much more sentimentally, though. Women traditionally grew their hair their whole lives, and much religious and popular rhetoric focused on it being a woman’s “crowning glory” and her beauty. Young girls typically wore their hair loose or in braids and began to pin it up in their mid or late teens, as a signifier of reaching maturity and adulthood. Adult and married women generally wore their hair pinned up always, sometimes in quite elaborate hairdos, with few exceptions. Not to be ignored, men in the late Victorian period began to wear their hair in slicked-over styles requiring the use of oils and creams like the heavily fragrant Macassar oil to give the popular “wet look” (pictured.) Fun fact: Antimacassars, the doilies or embroidered cloths that rest on the backs of armchairs or sofas in fussy B&Bs and period homes, were originally intended to prevent men from staining the backs of upholstered furniture with their oily hairdos—hence “anti-Macassar [oil].”. The next time you see an antimacassar, you are seeing a relic of a long-antiquated men’s hairstyle.
Hair was an important signifier to Victorians, not only of social class, but a sentimental part of their lives. The only truly common remaining remnant of hair sentimentality today is mothers who keep a lock or two from their children’s first haircuts—a staple in baby books. It was very common for Victorian women to exchange locks of hair, especially between dear friends and family whom one may never see again—a particularly common concern when traveling was time-consuming and expensive, and immigration usually left no option for a return trip. Schoolgirls frequently exchanged hair for scrapbooks as a memento. (In Anne of Green Gables, Anne asks Diana for a lock of her hair when they believe they are “parted forever” and Anne promises to “sew it up in a little bag and wear it around my neck all my life.” ) Consequently, to take a lock of hair from a recently-deceased loved one was very typical method of remembrance.
Exchanging locks of hair began to become popular in 16th-century France and England, and was a somewhat-common upper-class affectation for a couple of centuries. Beginning in the early 1800s it began to become extraordinarily popular, and by the turn of the century, hair art—and more specifically, hair jewelry—was so common that jewelers and high-fashion outlets began to describe it as tasteless, sentimental trash.
Part of the reason for its booming popularity was that it was “decent” enough to be worn during mourning. Mourning clothing forms a large part of our modern ideas of the Victorians, due in large part to two factors: The Civil War, and Queen Victoria. The Civil War created millions of bereaved American families and fostered a general culture that tended towards mourning and respect for the dead. Queen Victoria’s beloved consort Prince Albert died in 1861, and she plunged herself into a deep mourning that would last until her death in 1901. Then, as now, famous people set social trends, and mourning became fashionable.
Women were typically expected to be the chief mourners in their homes, in large part because their dress was instantly and significantly changeable. A man’s suit could take him from wedding to funeral without a change, but a woman donning a black crape dress and veil was an instant signifier of household mourning. The social demonstration of mourning was a highly gendered activity. Since birth and death both happened at home, they tended to fall under the umbrella of women’s cares, and a general understanding of women as more religious than men meant that mourning became a feminized activity.
Etiquette guides and ladies’ magazines became popular guides for The Correct Way To Mourn. Typically, “deep mourning” was for adult women who had lost a parent, spouse, or child, and was worn for a year and a day past the bereavement. “Half-mourning” meant different types of black fabrics and was worn for no less than six months, and “light mourning” typically meant subdued colours and jewelry, for at least three months, but at the wearer’s discretion. These various types of dress multiplied by dozens of familial connections meant a whole galaxy of permutations of mourning wear for women. (For example, women who married a man who had been widowed were often faced with the death of relative of the first wife, and were expected to wear some type of mourning clothes as a sort of proxy mourner on behalf of her husband.)
So, mourning wear often dominated women’s sartorial choices for years. In many cases it was intended to shield mourners from the wider world, since a woman wearing a three-foot black veil would be treated with deference and gentility in a public place. But this also set her apart and made her glamorous and worthy of special treatment—making it popular. Mourning wear was a signifier of class and wealth, since black fabrics such as crape and bombazine were difficult to maintain and care for. But thanks to the Industrial Revolution, fabric gradually dropped in cost, making it more accessible and more popular for middle- and lower-class women to wear mourning. In fact, mourning warehouses opened that sold black clothing off-the-rack (one of the very first instances where women could purchase ready-made clothing off the rack, in fact), along with all manner of “mourning essentials”—black-edged paper and notecards, black-edged handkerchiefs, black parasols, black veils, and especially mourning jewelry. Initially jewelry was forbidden during deep mourning, but gradually jet jewelry became accepted and even popular. Hair jewelry also came to be very popular as a form of jewelry suitable for mourning the deceased.
Clearly, mourning was becoming increasingly commercialized, as were many, many other aspects of society. Gradually instead of homemade items, nearly everything could be purchased in stores—soap and medicine and silver polish and clothes and thousands of items for every room in the house. These dramatic changes in society led many to romanticize the past and create strict social behaviours—like mourning—to bring a sense of stability to a world dizzy with possibilities. Women also turned to creative arts—like the creation of hair jewelry and art—to bring a sense of domesticity and personalization to parlours increasingly decorated with mass-printed lithographs.
The creation of hair jewelry and art was intensely personal and highly feminized. Magazine tutorials and pamphlets gave step-by-step instructions on how to create intricate woven pieces of jewelry and art, similar to magazines today that publish instructions on how to create a certain hairstyle or piece of home décor. Women worked from these instructions frequently in groups of family or friends as a bonding experience. Creation of these items often brought a structure to mourning—the creation of an item to remember and honour the deceased by could be intensely powerful and moving. Today we would probably describe this as a way of processing, grieving, and accepting the death. To the Victorians it was a way of remembering their loved one in a tangible way.
What could be more enduring than hair art? Hair does not decay, and if cared for properly it will remain as stable as on the day of the death. The most common hair jewelry then and now were lockets and brooches. Lockets are ideal for keeping a tiny snippet of hair in, and date back to the original days of hair memorials in the 16th century. Brooches were very common in the Victorian period, and it was easy to arrange a braid or carefully-decorated lock of hair under glass. Men who carried hair art usually confined it to simple braids or decoration on pocketwatch fobs. Magazines gave instructions on how to treat hair with a homemade mixture to stiffen it, allowing women to create rings, necklaces, bracelets, and even hair bows made out of delicately woven hair. (You could wear a hair bow made of hair in your own hair!) Bottled mixtures of glue were sold or available by mail-order catalogue that promised to maintain the structural integrity of hair art for decades to come.
Hair art was also a popular motif for inside the home. The most common were hair wreaths (pictured above), usually composed of ringlets of hair from each member of the family, arranged in an artistic way under glass. These could grow quite extensively, comprising hair from not only parents and children, but grandparents, cousins, and a host of other family members. Occasionally hairwork could be twisted and frizzled to resemble crosses (puctured below) or flowers, and then would be displayed under a glass case. Hair could be chopped into tiny pieces and used to create texture in paintings. Hair art was an obvious, tangible, clear sign of familial love and devotion.
Just like any other homemade art form, it quickly grew commercialized, and mail-order shops sprang up that promised to take a loved one’s hair and return it some weeks later as a beautiful piece of wearable art. However, these shops were not held in high regard—many feared that the art returned to them would be the hair of a stranger, rendering it pointless. In many ways the yen for homemade hair art and hair jewelry is like the resurgence of handicrafts today—knitting, quilting, canning, and other domestic arts. Far from being a morbid reminder of death, it was a comforting memento of a much-missed loved one. Creating hair jewelry and art was a uniquely feminized way of bonding and grieving. Hair art also created a feminine historical record of the home as a counterpoint to outside sources controlled and administered by men—a tangible record of births and deaths, families and friends, love and grief.
Hair art is probably not due for a resurgence any time soon, like knitting or quilting. But far from being morbid, hair art and hair jewelry was a uniquely feminine form of mourning that did not rely on the public gaze, like black clothing. It provided a way for women to bond with family and beloved friends, to mourn relatives, create beautiful objects, and form a familial record distinct from outside sources. A surprisingly large number of hairwork pieces remain today—a testament to their wild popularity during the nineteenth century. While in almost every case the family story behind the jewelry or art has been lost to time and the passing of fads, hair art remains a fascinating and valuable way to examine an understudied part of Victorian women’s experiences.
Lindsey Palka holds a Master's degree in Canadian history, focusing on the First World War, youth, and family history in the Atlantic provinces. She reads, reviews, and trashes young adult historical novels from the '80s, '90s, and 2000s on her blog, Young Adult Historical Vault.