Flesh decomposes to bone, taking our faces and figures with it. But clip a lock of hair, and it will keep its color for decades, even centuries. Thus, art crafted from hair—a 19th-century tradition in which tresses were braided into jewelry, looped to resemble flower petals, even ground up for use in pigments—remains frozen in time.
Hair art has its roots in the 17th and 18th century, when high infant mortality rates meant that “death was everywhere,” writes Karen Bachmann in an essay for the recent book Death: A Graveside Companion. “The keeping and saving of hair for future use in jewelry or other commemorative craft (such as wreaths) was common.” But it wasn’t until the Victorian era that “the ‘cult of the dead’ became almost a mania in Britain.”
This was spurred by Queen Victoria herself, who ruled the British Empire from 1837 until her death in 1901. “In 1861, her beloved husband, Prince Consort Albert, died, upon which the Queen entered into a state of formal mourning that lasted the rest of her life,” Joanna Ebenstein, founder of New York’s Morbid Anatomy Museum and editor of Death: A Graveside Companion, told Artsy. “This encouraged a fashion for mourning in popular culture on both sides of the Atlantic that lingered until the turn of the 20th century.” (In the United States, the high death toll of the Civil War further fueled this trend.)
“The Victorians were also famously sentimental,” Ebenstein continued. “Hair art, which could be used to commemorate the living or dead beloved, perfectly merges the fashion for mourning and sentimentality.”
These works of hair art share a sense of intimacy, as many were intended to be worn on the body or displayed in the home. “People would use pulverized hair as a kind of a pigment and paint a mourning scene, and then on the flip side of the jewelry would be a lock of the person’s hair, worn close to the person’s heart,” said Emily Snedden Yates, special projects manager at the Mütter and co-curator of the exhibition. These objects joined other rituals of 19th-century grief that were both popular and obligatory, including elaborate mourning dress and posthumous portraits of corpses.
Although hair art is frequently associated with memento moris, or objects of mourning, it was just as often used to make family trees or tokens of friendship. “Historically, there is still more hair art that pertains to living people,” Snedden Yates noted. Several of the examples in “Woven Strands” feature family photographs framed by hair wreaths, as much a record of these people as the captured image. A hair tree under a dome was created with tresses contributed by living members of a Methodist Church.
“A lot of hair would be braided and then placed in a book and a poem would be written underneath it, or something describing their relationship with a person,” Snedden Yates said. “It was really an ode to the person’s essence.”
Rarely does the name of the artist survive. It’s believed that most works of hair art were made by women; books on ladies’ “fancywork” provided instructions alongside other Victorian parlor crafts like needlework or wax flowers. One technique, known as palette work, required hair to be laid flat and woven into a pattern, then cut with stencils into shapes. Table work, on the other hand, called for hair to be plaited into jewelry or heirlooms. An 1867 edition of a hair art guide by Mark Campbell affirms: “Persons wishing to preserve and weave into lasting mementos, the hair of a deceased father, mother, sister, brother, or child, can also enjoy the inexpressible advantage and satisfaction of knowing that the material of their own handiwork is the actual hair of the ‘loved and gone.’”
“There was a pretty abrupt stop once World War I took the focus and demanded people’s attention,” Snedden Yates said, noting that only one piece in the show was made post-World War I.
Yet even today, when the accessibility of photography and social media renders hair portraits of our loved ones obsolete, the craftsmanship of these historic examples is evident. Every meticulous knot in a strand or delicate petal of a flower formed with hair and wire reflects an intimate connection between the artist and the absent subject that acted as both portrait and talisman of a relationship.