Victorian Hair Jewellery and Artwork: More Than Mere Macabre

The 19th century, dominated by the Victorian era, witnessed the rise of a peculiar yet intricate art: jewellery and artworks made from human hair. To the untrained modern eye, such creations might appear odd, if not slightly morbid. Yet, a closer examination reveals that these objects, suffused with sentimentality and memory, encapsulate the emotional depth of the period.

During the 19th century, hairwork – the name given to art and objects crafted from hair – occupied a unique place in the personal and social lives of many. Far from being a novelty, the use of hair as a symbol of remembrance has deep historical roots. An anonymous article from 1848 titled “The Hair as Remembrancer” suggests that preserving the hair of deceased loved ones is among the “oldest” customs known to mankind. The enduring nature of hair, its ability to withstand the ravages of time even after being separated from the body, rendered it a poignant symbol of lasting life.

In the early Victorian era, it was customary to preserve locks of hair as sentimental keepsakes following the passing of loved ones, often encased in lockets. Queen Victoria’s profound public mourning for her husband, Prince Albert, set a precedent in both grieving customs and attire that resonated throughout Europe and the United States. This trend persisted from 1861, the year she was widowed, until her demise four decades later. Throughout this period, Queen Victoria consistently wore a heart-shaped locket enclosing her husband’s hair.

For Victorians, the function of hair, particularly in mourning jewellery, transcended mere aesthetics. It was perceived as a continuation of the deceased, an embodiment of their essence. The 19th-century visual culture, rife with idealized portrayals of death, often juxtaposed beauty with immortality. Art forms of the era, be it sketches capturing the last moments of a person’s life, the taking of death masks, or in later years of the Victorian era, the taking of post-mortem photographs, epitomized this desire to immortalize the deceased. Hairwork, in this context, seamlessly aligns with portraiture. It is a tangible extension of an individual, revered as a sentimental keepsake. For its possessor, hairwork possesses an almost magical ability to reconstruct and immortalize the deceased, transcending the confines of their loved ones mortality.

Despite its deep-seated significance, hairwork, especially from the Victorian era, often confronts misconceptions. Contemporary observers occasionally deride it as a disconcerting vestige of a bygone time, sometimes unfairly branding the Victorians as having a pathological obsession with death. Such characterizations are further propagated by comments from some historians, who seem to describe mourning hair jewellery as “curiously unnerving objects.” However, these judgments obscure the genuine emotions and rituals tied to hairwork at the time. The Victorians were not obsessed with death per se; rather, they sought ways to cherish the memories of their departed loved ones through tangible mementos.

The art of ornamental hairwork predates the Victorian era. Emerging in the 17th century, hair was interwoven into love tokens and memorabilia. Often encapsulated under crystal in brooches, it was accompanied by “memento mori” motifs, reminders of mortality. These brooches functioned as both memorials and secular relics, symbolizing personal loss while also emphasizing the transient nature of life.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, hairwork and miniature portraits became intimately linked. Miniature portraits commemorated significant life events, from births to deaths. The union of hair with these portraits in small lockets created a powerful artifact – the visual representation of a person enhanced by their physical essence, encapsulated in their hair. Surprisingly, the onset of photography from the 1870s strengthened this bond, at least initially, with locks of hair accompanying photographic portraits.

Hairwork’s popularity peaked between 1830 and 1880. This period saw the art form evolve, with hair not just preserved in lockets, but also elaborately braided into various accessories. Items of jewellery made from hair could include brooches, bracelets, watch chains, necklaces and even earrings. The intricacy of these creations is evident in diagrams from Mark Campbell’s 1867 guide, “Self-Instructor in the Art of Hair Work.” This detailed book shows many different ways to braid hair and arrange it to produce beautiful hair jewellery. Today, there are still a few hairwork specialists that can be commissioned to produce hair Jewellery using the techniques of the Victorian era.

However, as with all art forms, hairwork experienced a decline towards the end of the Nineteenth Century. Multiple factors contributed: With the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, royal family members moved towards wearing silver Jewellery and the British population at the time tended to follow the new royal trends. Photography was becoming more common, replacing more traditional items of sentimentality like hairwork. In addition, the profound impact of World War I, with the omnipresent presence of death made this kind of practice redundant and perhaps an unwanted reminder of the horrors of war. Concurrently, evolving hygiene standards in European and American society began to view hair art as less sanitary, leading to discomfort and apprehension towards its display and possession.

In conclusion, Victorian hair jewellery and artworks represent more than just a quirky fashion of a bygone era. They are testimonies to a time when emotions were deeply interwoven with art, encapsulating the profound human need to remember, mourn, and celebrate life. The intricate braids and patterns of hairwork serve as enduring reminders of a society that cherished memory and sentimentality above all.


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