8 February 2019


Sew What | Rachel Dice

Have you ever wondered how certain fashions took off?

Hair broach from the Aurora Museum and Archives
collection. It is intricately woven with more hair as a
backing, and has small hair-wrapped wire letters in the
shape of a J and an S. Accession #2001.5.2. Photo
courtesy of Rachel Dice
The clothes we wear and the accessories we choose have always been about self-expression. When we dress with flair or with somber blacks and dark colours, the average person gets a hint about how we’re feeling and what we want to present to the world. Funeral blacks have become the universally acknowledged Western indication of a loss through death. These colours represent the deepest mourning and respect for the dead. In our modern times, we usually only wear black to the funeral and after that colours are free to enter our wardrobes once more. This wasn’t always so.

In the Victorian era, mourning culture dictated that a recently widowed woman should wear full black for an entire year. After this period, she could then switch to half-mourning for another year, which meant she was allowed to wear grey, greyish-purples, and dark brown along with black. Ultimately, it was a dreary colour set and every person who set eyes on her would instantly know that she was in mourning. Mourning etiquette was so strict that it not only dictated the colours of your clothes, but it dictated what kind of jewelry you could wear as well. The standard gold and silver were allowed, but anything with bright bursts of colour like rubies, sapphires, and emeralds, or their shiny glass equivalents were strictly forbidden. Diamonds were permissible, since they are technically colourless, and pearls were favoured since they were often used to represent tears. The best embellishments for mourning jewelry, however, were made from the hair of the deceased.

Hair broach from the Aurora Museum &
Archives. This broach showcases a beautifully
woven oval of dark brown hair.
Accession# 82.7.3. Photo courtesy of Rachel
Recently, it has become popular to have a necklace made with a silver ornament that is actually a canister in which people can keep a bit of the ashes of their recently lost loved ones. It’s a modern way to keep them close to your heart even after they’ve passed on. While this trend is meant to preserve memories of the dead and comfort the living, it’s a little bit different from the Victorian concept of mourning jewelry because there’s no etiquette book or similar set of social rules that demands you wear it. The concept of death itself has actually changed vastly over the last century; instead of it being a public event, death has become private and almost taboo to speak about in polite company. In the Victorian era, death and funerals happened at home. “Not only were people used to being around bodies that were dying and had recently died, but the kind of associations that we have today of the dead body being a gruesome thing or a frightening thing was a little different.” (source). 

In the Victorian era, mourning was part of the woman’s sphere. It was her wardrobe that changed, her social life that changed, and her pastimes that changed. Usually, a woman who had lost a loved one would take it upon herself to make mourning ornaments out of their hair and then have it set in gold or silver. Other common ways to use hair were the making of ornamental wreaths that were often framed and hung in the family home. These wreathes were usually added to following the loss of a loved one but could also be added to with living family members’ hair as well. Wreathes made of both living and deceased family members’ hair were often more of a sentimental family tree.

So why hair?
Hair wreath made by
Jean Malloy (b.1796, d. 1857) of Aurora,
from the Aurora Museum & Archives collection.
This wreath is made from several different family
member's hair. Accession# 988.30.
Photo courtesy of Rachel Dice

Well, hair is remarkably decay-resistant. Hair jewelry over 150 years old—while slightly tarnished on its metal bits—still holds the lustre and shine it had when it was first created. Most people believe that hair keeps growing even after you die, and while this is false—the skin around your hair contracts, making it look longer—the idea has persisted. Even Queen Victoria, who famously wore mourning for 40 years following the death of her husband Prince Albert, wore a choker necklace made with a lock of Albert’s hair.

The art and sentiments behind this jewelry is beautiful. At the end of the day, it’s a desire to remember a loved one and to honour family relationships—all while being fashionable. It might seem a little hair-raising to our delicate modern sensibilities, but fashion changes alongside society. My real question is, how would these look if Victorians dyed their hair all sorts of unnatural colours like we do today?

Extra Reading for the curious: A Victorian Guide for making your own hair jewelry published in 1867. Have you got the skills to bring back this trend?

If historic fashions and traditions are your style, the Aurora Museum & Archives is opening a new exhibition - The Wardrobes of Aurora: Dressing for Birth, Death, and Everything in Between. Curated by Rachel Dice, Carolyn Ben, Jessica Ho, and Rong Zou, the exhibition will feature these hair-art pieces and much more.

Intricately woven, braided, and twisted hair art
in the shapes of tubes. From the collections at
the Aurora Museum & Archives, this piece is
incomplete, and made of three different people's
hair. The box this was donated in says Grandma
Lana's hair, aunt Rosie's, and Louise. Photos courtesy
of Rachel Dice.

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