A Victorian Work of Art

Author 
JEANETTE ELLIOTT, COLLECTIONS RELOCATION COORDINATOR

This past season I worked on a part of our collection that I have to admit creeps me out a little bit. The idea that someone took the time to collect and create a wreath fashioned from human hair seems to me to be highly eccentric, not to mention strange! However, as I began to examine and carefully clean these Victorian oddities I gained a new appreciation for the artistic craftsmanship and the varied and intricate designs demonstrated in these works of art.

Examples of hair art or jewelry made from hair date back as far as the 12th century, but it was during the Victorian era that it became extraordinarily popular. Much of the increased interest can be attributed to two events - the death of Queen Victoria’s husband, Albert, in 1861, and the American Civil War. The war left thousands of mourning families looking for ways to respectfully honour their dead family members. Queen Victoria took mourning to a whole new level, dressing in black until her death in 1901. It is said she always wore a piece of jewelry made from Albert’s hair. It is during this period that mourning, and the social demonstration of mourning became fashionable.

Usually displayed in a place of honour in the parlour, a hair wreath could combine not only the tresses of the deceased but also hair of the living or extended family. Intricate natural and floral designs created with hair and fine wire would be arranged in a u-shaped wreath with a bouquet of hair from the most recently deceased placed prominently in the middle. The top of the wreath was left open to allow the ascent of the spirit of the loved one. While this may seem morbid to many, the Victorians viewed it as a touching memento of a much-missed relative.

Hair art was not strictly reserved for periods of mourning; Victorians also wore or exchanged hair art as a sign of affection or to show their sentimentality. Hair jewelry allowed the wearer to carry a personal reminder of a loved one, such as a watch fob, ring or brooch. It was not uncommon for young Victorian women to exchange locks of hair and keep them in an autograph or scrapbook as a reminder of an enduring friendship.

Today the only similar remnant of this unique Victorian practice that remains are parents who proudly tuck away a lock or two from their child’s first trip to the hairdresser.