Posted by: mollyjoyce | December 6, 2021

Repurposing Remains: Victorian Hairwork

Unknown, Framed Hair Wreath with Ambrotype, 1860’s. The College of Physicians of Philadelphia and Mütter Museum.

In this class, we’ve explored aspects of the Victorian cult of death, particularly post-mortem photography, which afforded loved ones a last opportunity to immortalize the body of the deceased. Victorians were highly sentimental and preoccupied with death, and photography was not their only method of preservation. Some Victorians kept their loved ones’ teeth, but one of the most striking examples of post-mortem preservation are hairworks – artwork or jewelry made from a lock of the deceased’s hair. Hairworks allowed loved ones to carry their remains around with them – as bracelets, necklaces, and hairclips. When people die, they leave objects and memories behind, but hairworks far surpass earthly possessions or abstract memories as commemorative instruments. They are tangible pieces of their bodies.

Unknown, Bracelet and brooch, British ca. 1837. Hair, gold, ivory, seed pearls, paillettes, Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

Hair was an ideal medium, as it can last for centuries without losing its pigmentation. Most fascinating is how the Victorians saw hair as a suitable stand-in for the person’s essence. It goes farther than a photograph or artistic representation of their likeness: it contains actual organic material from their bodies, therein keeping them alive in-part (no matter that hair is technically dead to begin with). Some pieces combine post-mortem photography with hairworks, framing the photographs with floral wreaths made from hair to create a more holistic representation of the departed.

Another intriguing aspect of hairworks was their usage as talismans that could connect the living to the dead. In The Dead Still Among Us: Victorian Secular Relics, Hair Jewelry, and Death Culture, Deborah Lutz explores the usage of Hairworks in Wuthering Heights. Upon Catherine’s death, Heathcliff steals into her room and replaces the lock of Edward’s hair in her locket with his own. He desires a part of his presence to go with her to whenever it is that she goes, and believes that connecting a piece of his body to hers would make it easier to find her on the other side. Lutz says that Heathcliff believes that “Catherine’s death doesn’t mean she has disappeared, but rather that she has become temporarily unlocatable.” Hairworks, then, are more than mere memorials; they are evidence of a soul still in existence, a mortal tether to a person who hasn’t ceased to exist, but has simply gone somewhere inaccessible to the living.

Unknown, Portrait Brooch contaning a lock of brown hair, 1800-1830. New York Historical Society.

Sources:

Lutz, Deborah. “The Dead Still Among Us: Victorian Secular Relics, Hair Jewelry, and Death Culture.” Victorian Literature and Culture, vol. 39, no. 1, Cambridge University Press, 2011, pp. 127–42, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41307854.


Responses

  1. This is so interesting, Molly! Thank you for sharing. When reading your post, I was reminded of instagram posts I have seen lately – it seems as though hair work is not as far removed from us as it would seen. I have seen posts of small businesses that create jewelry or keepsakes from the ashes of loved ones, or even jewelry from breastmilk in order to commemorate that stage of someone’s life.


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