In the seventh episode of Bizzarro Bazar: the tragic and startling story of the Sutherland Sisters; a piece of the Moon which fell to Earth; a creature halfway between the plant kingdom and the animal kingdom. [Be sure to turn on English captions.]
Part of the pleasure of collecting curiosities lies in discovering the reactions they cause in various people: seeing the wonder arise on the face of onlookers always moves me, and gives meaning to the collection itself. Among the objects that, at least in my experience, evoke the strongest emotional response there are without doubt mourning-related accessories, and in particular those extraordinary XIX Century decorative works made by braiding a deceased person’s hair.
Be it a small brooch containing a simple lock of hair, a framed picture or a larger wreath, there is something powerful and touching in these hairworks, and the feeling they convey is surprisingly universal. You could say that anyone, regardless of their culture, experience or provenance, is “equipped” to recognize the archetypical value of hair: to use them in embroidery, jewelry and decoration is therefore an eminently magical act.
I decided to discuss this peculiar tradition with an expert, who was so kind as to answer my questions.
Courtney Lane is a real authority on the subject, not just its history but also its practical side: she studied the original techniques with the intent of bringing them back to life, as she is convinced that this ancient craft could accomplish its function of preserving memory still today.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I am a Victorian hair artist, historian, and self-proclaimed professional weirdo based in Kansas City. My business is called Never Forgotten where, as an artist, I create modern works of Victorian style sentimental hairwork for clients on a custom basis as well as making my own pieces using braids and locks of antique human hair that I find in places such as estate sales at old homes. As an academic, I study the history of hairwork and educate others through lectures as well as online video, and I also travel to teach workshops on how to do hairwork techniques.
Hairwork by Courtney Lane.
Where does your interest for Victorian hairwork come from?
I’ve always had a deep love for history and finding beauty in places that many consider to be dark or macabre. At the young age of 5, I fell in love with the beauty of 18th and 19th century mausoleums in the cemeteries near the French Quarter of New Orleans. Even as a child, I adored the grand gesture of these elaborate tombs for memorializing the dead. This lead me to developing a particular fondness for the Victorian era and the funerary customs of the time.
Somewhere along the line in studying Victorian mourning, I encountered the idea of hairwork. A romantic at heart, I’d already known of the romantic value a lock of hair from your loved one could hold, so I very naturally accepted that it would also be a perfect relic to keep of a deceased loved one. I found the artwork to be stunning and the sentiment to be of even greater beauty. I wondered why it was that we no longer practiced hairwork widely, and I needed to know why.
I studied for years trying to find the answers and eventually I learned how to do the artwork myself. I thoroughly believed that the power of sentimental hairwork could help society reclaim a healthier relationship with death and mourning, and so I decided to begin my business to create modern works, educate the public on the often misunderstood history of the artform, and ensure that this sentimental tradition is “Never Forgotten”.
How did hairwork become a popular mourning practice historically? Was the hair collected before or post mortem? Was it always related to grieving?
Hairwork has taken on a variety of purposes, most of which have been inherently sentimental, but it has not always been related to grieving. With the death of her husband, Queen Victoria fell into a deep mourning which lasted the remaining 40 years of her life. This, in turn, created a certain fashionability, and almost a fetishism, of mourning in the Victorian era. Most people today believe all hairwork had the purpose of elaborating a loss, but between the 1500s and early 1900s, hairwork included romantic keepsakes from a loved one or family mementos, and sometimes served as memorabilia from an important time in one’s life. As an example, many of the large three-dimensional wreaths you can still see actually served as a form of family history. Hair was often collected from several (often living) members of the family and woven together to create a genealogy. I’ve seen other examples of hairwork simply commemorating a major life event such as a first communion or a wedding. Long before hairwork became an art form, humans had already been exchanging locks of hair; so it’s only natural that there were instances of couples wearing jewelry that contained the hair of their living lovers.
As far as mourning hairwork is concerned, the hair was sometimes collected post mortem, and sometimes the hair was saved from an earlier time in their life. As hair was such an important part of culture, it was often saved when it was cut whether or not there was an immediate plan for making art or jewelry with it.
The idea of using hair as a mourning practice largely stems from Catholicism in the Middle Ages and the power of saintly relics in the church. The relic of a saint is more than just the physical remains of their body, rather it provides a spiritual connection to the holy person, creating a link between life and death. This belief that a relic can be a substitute for the person easily transitioned from public, religious mourning to private, personal mourning.
Of the types of relics (bone, flesh, etc), hair is by far the most accessible to the average person, as it does not need any sort of preservation to avoid decomposition, much as the rest of the body does; collecting from the body is as simple as using a pair of scissors. Hair is also one of the most identifiable parts of person, so even though pieces of bone might just be as much of a relic, hair is part of your loved one that you see everyday in life, and can continue to recognize after death.
Was hairwork strictly a high-class practice?
Hairwork was not strictly high-class. Although hairwork was kept by some members of upper class, it was predominantly a middle-class practice. Some hairwork was done by professional hairworkers, and of course, anyone commissioning them would need the means to do so; but a lot of hairwork was done in the home usually by the women of the family. With this being the case, the only expenses would be the crafting tools (which many middle-class women would already likely have around the home), and the jewelry findings, frames, or domes to place the finished hairwork in.
How many people worked at a single wreath, and for how long? Was it a feminine occupation, like embroidery?
Hairwork was usually, but not exclusively done by women and was even considered a subgenre of ladies’ fancy work. Fancy work consisted of embroidery, beadwork, featherwork, and more. There are even instances of women using hair to embroider and sew. It was thought to be a very feminine trait to be able to patiently and meticulously craft something beautiful.
As far as wreaths are concerned, it varied in the number of people who would work together to create one. Only a few are well documented enough to know for sure.
I’ve also observed dozens of different techniques used to craft flowers in wreaths and some techniques are more time consuming than others. One of the best examples I’ve seen is an incredibly well documented piece that indicates that the whole wreath consists of 1000 flowers (larger than the average wreath) and was constructed entirely by one woman over the span of a year. The documentation also specifies that the 1000 flowers were made with the hair of 264 people.
Why did it fall out of fashion during the XX Century?
Hairwork started to decline in popularity in the early 1900’s. There were several reasons.
The first reason was the growth of hairwork as an industry. Several large companies and catalogues started advertising custom hairwork, and many people feared that sending out for the hairwork rather than making it in the home would take away from the sentiment. Among these companies was Sears, Roebuck and Company, and in one of their catalogues in 1908, they even warned, “We do not do this braiding ourselves. We send it out; therefore we cannot guarantee same hair being used that is sent to us; you must assume all risk.” This, of course, deterred people from using professional hairworkers.
Another reason lies with the development and acceptance of germ theory in the Victorian era. The more people learned about germs and the more sanitary products were being sold, the more people began to view the human body and all its parts as a filthy thing. Along with this came the thought that hair, too, was unclean and people began to second guess using it as a medium for art and jewelry.
World War I also had a lot to do with the decline of hairwork. Not only was there a general depletion in resources for involved countries, but more and more women began to work outside of the home and no longer had the time to create fancy work daily. During war time when everybody was coming together to help the war effort, citizens began to turn away from frivolous expenses and focus only on necessities. Hair at this time was seen for the practical purposes it could serve. For example, in Germany there were propaganda posters encouraging women to cut their long hair and donate it to the war effort when other fibrous materials became scarce. The hair that women donated was used to make practical items such as transmission belts.
With all of these reasons working together, sentimental hairwork was almost completely out of practice by the year 1925; no major companies continued to create or repair hairwork, and making hairwork at home was no longer a regular part of daily life for women.
19th century hairworks have become trendy collectors items; this is due in part to a fascination with Victorian mourning practices, but it also seems to me that these pieces hold a special value, as opposed to other items like regular brooches or jewelry, because of – well, the presence of human hair. Do you think we might still be attaching some kind of “magical”, symbolic power to hair? Or is it just an expression of morbid curiosity for human remains, albeit in a mild and not-so-shocking form?
I absolutely believe that all of these are true. Especially amongst people less familiar with these practices, there is a real shock value to seeing something made out of hair. When I first introduce the concept of hairwork to people, some find the idea to be disgusting, but most are just fascinated that the hair does not decompose. People today are so out of touch with death, that they immediately equate hair as a part of the body and don’t understand how it can still be perfectly pristine over a hundred years later. For those who don’t often ponder their own mortality, thinking about the fact that hair can physically live on long after they’ve died can be a completely staggering realization.
Once the initial surprise and morbid curiosity have faded, many people recognize a special value in the hair itself. Amongst serious collectors of hair, there seems to be a touching sense of fulfillment in the opportunity to preserve the memory of somebody who once was loved enough to be memorialized this way – even if they remain nameless today. Some may say it is a spiritual calling, but I would say at the very least it is a shared sense of mortal empathy.
What kind of research did you have to do in order to learn the basics of Victorian hairworks? After all, this could be described as a kind of “folk art”, which was meant for a specific, often personal purpose; so were there any books at the time holding detailed instructions on how to do it? Or did you have to study original hairworks to understand how it was done?
Learning hairwork was a journey for me. First, I should say that there are several different types of hairwork and some techniques are better documented than others. Wire work is the type of hairwork you see in wreaths and other three-dimensional flowers. I was not able to find any good resources on how to do these techniques, so in order to learn, I began by studying countless wreaths. I took every opportunity I could to study wreaths that were out of their frame or damaged so I could try to put them back together and see how everything connected. I spent hours staring at old pieces and playing with practice hair through trial and error.
Other techniques are palette work and table work. Palette work includes flat pictures of hair which you may see in a frame or under glass in jewelry, and table work includes the elaborate braids that make up a jewelry chain such as a necklace or a watch fob.
The Lock of Hair by Alexanna Speight and Art of Hair Work: Hair Braiding and Jewelry of Sentiment by Mark Campbell teach palette work and table work, respectively. Unfortunately, being so old, these books use archaic English and also reference tools and materials that are no longer made or not as easy to come by. Even after reading these books, it takes quite a bit of time to find modern equivalents and practice with a few substitutions to find the best alternative. For these reasons, I would love to write an instructional book explaining all three of these core techniques in an easy to understand way using modern materials, so hairwork as a craft can be more accessible to a wider audience.
Why do you think this technique could be still relevant today?
The act and tradition of saving hair is still present in our society. Parents often save a lock of their child’s first haircut, but unfortunately that lock of hair will stay hidden away in an envelope or a book and rarely seen again. I’ve also gained several clients just from meeting someone who has never heard of hairwork, but they still felt compelled cut a lock of hair from their deceased loved one to keep. Their eyes consistently light up when they learn that they can wear it in jewelry or display it in artwork. Time and again, these people ask me if it’s weird that they saved this hair. Often, they don’t even know why they did. It’s a compulsion that many of us feel, but we don’t talk about it or celebrate it in our modern culture, so they think they’re strange or morbid even though it’s an incredibly natural thing to do.
Another example is saving your own hair when it’s cut. Especially in instances of cutting hair that’s been grown very long or hair that has been locked, I very often encounter people who have felt so much of a personal investment in their own hair that they don’t feel right throwing it out. These individuals may keep their hair in a bag for years, not knowing what to do with it, only knowing that it felt right to keep. This makes perfect sense to me, because hair throughout history has always been a very personal thing. Even today, people identify each other by hair whether it be length, texture, color, or style. Different cultures may wear their hair in a certain way to convey something about their heritage, or individuals will use their own creativity or sense of self to decide how to wear their hair. Whether it be for religion, culture, romance, or mourning, the desire to attach sentimental value to hair and the impulse to keep the hair of your loved one are inherently human.
I truly believe that being able to proudly display our hair relics can help us process some of our most intimate emotions and live our best lives.
Every now and then we come across news reports about bullying acts that involve, among other things, the complete shaving of the vexed person.
In these pages we have often drawn attention to the fact that human beings are “symbolic animals”, namely that our mind acts through symbols and frequently – sometimes unconsciously – relies on myths: therefore, why do people consider cutting someone’s hair by force as a disfigurement? Is it only an aesthetic concern, or is there more to it?
First of all, this kind of violence damages somebody’s appearance, and the hairdo has always been one of the most important ways of expressing personality. Since ancient times, every hairstyle has been assigned more or less explicit meanings.
For example, to wear one’s hair down was normally considered as a sign of mourning or submission. Yet, in different contexts such as ritual ceremonies, to leave one’s hair down was a crucial element of some shamanic dances – the irruption of the sacred that wildly sweeps social conventions and restrictions away.
Consider that women have always regarded their hair as one of their most effective weapons of seduction: the hairdo –to hide or show the hair, to wear it up or down – frequently marked the difference between available or modest women; therefore, some cultures go as far as to forbid married women to show their hair (in Russia, for example, there is a saying that “a girl has fun only as long as she is bareheaded“), or at least oblige her to hide it every time she enters a church (Christian West), in order to inhibit its function as a sexual provocation.
The way people comb their hair reflects their individual psychology, of course, but also the values shared by specific social contexts: fashion, the beliefs widespread in a certain period, precepts of religious institutions or a rebellion against all these things. Hairdos that challenge the dominant taste and knock down barriers have often come with social or artistic rebellions (Scapigliatura, the beat generation, the hippie movement, punk, feminism, LGBT, etc.).
Therefore at the end of the 1960s – a period marked by strong social tensions – longhaired people were often charged by the police, in most cases for no other reason than their look:
Almost cut my hair, it happened just the other day.
It’s getting’ kinda long, I coulda said it wasn’t in my way.
But I didn’t and I wonder why, I feel like letting my freak flag fly,
Cause I feel like I owe it to someone. (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Almost Cut My Hair, 1970)
Have you ever changed the colour of your hair, your haircut or hairdo at crucial moments in your life, as if by changing the appearance of your hair, you could also change your inner self? Obviously nowadays hairdos are still strongly connected to personal emotions. But there’s more to it.
Like nails, hair has always been associated with sexual and vital force by the public imagination. Therefore, according to magical thinking a powerful empathy exists between people and their hair. It is a bond that can’t be broken even after the hair are severed from the body: the locks that have been cut or got stuck between the comb’s teeth are precious ingredients for spells and evil eyes, whereas a saint’s hair is normally worshipped as a very miraculous relic. Hair preserves the virtues of its owners and the intimate relationship between human beings and their hair outlive its severance.
Hence the custom, within many families, to keep hair bunches and the first deciduous teeth. The scope of such practices goes beyond the perpetuation of memory – in a sense they attempt to guarantee the survival of the condition of the hair’s owner.
(Chevalier-Gheebrant, Dictionnaire des symboles, 1982).
The hair bunch that a man receives from the woman he loves as a token of love is a recurrent fetish in nineteenth century Romanticism, but it is during the Victorian era that the obsession with hair attains its summit, especially in the field of jewellery and of accessories connected with mourning. Brooches and clasps containing the hair of the deceased, arranged in floral patterns, complicated arrangements to be hanged on walls, bracelets made of exquisitely plaited hair… Victorian mourning jewelry is one of the most moving examples of popular funeral art. At the beginning the female relatives of the deceased used his/her hair to create these mementos to carry with them forever; photography wasn’t always available at that time, and many people couldn’t afford a portrait, so these jewels were the only tangible memory of the deceased.
Over time, this kind of objects became part of the fashion of the period, especially after the death of Prince Albert in 1861, when queen Victoria and her courtiers dressed in mourning for dozens of years. After the example of the Royals, black turned out to be the most popular colour and mourning jewellery became so widespread that it began to contain hair belonging to other people as well as to the deceased. In the second half of the nineteenth century, 50 tons of human hair were imported by English jewellers to their country every year. In order to establish a connection between the jewel and the deceased, the name or its initials started to be carved on the object.
All this brings us back to the idea that hair is connected to the essence of its owner’s life, and holds at least a spark of his/her personality.
Let’s go back to the victim mentioned at the beginning of this article, whose head was shaven by force.
This is a shocking insult because it is perceived as a metaphorical castration for a male, and as a denial of femininity in the case of a female victim. The hair is associated to certain powers, such as strength and virility – consider Samson, for example – but above all to the concept of identity.
In Vietnam, for example, a peculiar divinatory art was developed, that may be called “trichomancy”, which allows to understand somebody’s destiny or virtues by observing the arrangement of hair follicles on the scalp. And if hair tells many things about individual personality, to the monks that renounce their individuality to follow the ways of the Lord, shaving is not only a sacrifice but a surrender, a renunciation to the subject’s prerogatives and identity itself.
To cut the hair is not a trivial act.
In the past centuries a thick head of hair was a sign of power and nobleness. So the aristocratic privilege to wear long hair in France was exclusively reserved to Kings and Princes, whereas in China all that wore their hair short – which was considered as a real mutilation – were banned from some public employments. According to American Natives, to scalp the enemy was an ultimate mutilation, the highest expression of contempt. In parallel, within some cultures to cut the hair during the first years of somebody’s life was a taboo because the new-born babies may run the risk to lose their soul. Countless peoples consider a baby’s first haircut as a rite of passage, involving celebrations and propitiatory acts to draw evil spirits away – after part of their vital force has gone together with their hair, babies are actually more exposed to dangers. Within the Native American tribe of the Hopi in Arizona, the haircut is a collective ritual that takes place once a year, during the celebrations of the winter solstice. Elsewhere, the haircut is suspended during wars, or as a consequence of a vow: Egyptians didn’t shave during a journey and recently the barbudos of Fidel Castro swore not to touch their beards nor hair until Cuba would be freed by dictatorship.
All this explains why to cut the enemy’s hair by force is regarded as a terrible punishment since antiquity, sometimes even worse than death. People always assign deep meanings to every aspect of reality; even today a mere offence between kids that, all things considered, could be innocuous (the hair will quickly grow back) is usually a shock for the public opinion; maybe because in the haircut people recognize – with the obvious differences – the echoes of cruel rites and practices with an ancestral symbolic significance.