Historic Northampton

Virtual Exhibits

History of Hair Jewelery in Victorian America

Mourning dress was popular throughout Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but it wasn't until Queen Victoria was widowed in 1861 upon Prince Albert's death that mourning dress spread throughout England, America and the world. Victoria, widowed at 42, proceeded to wear mourning dress for the next forty years of her life and required that her court do the same. The aristocracy followed suit, and mourning dress filtered down to all classes as an expression of dignity and social status. Although Americans were not directly affected by the mourning of England's monarch, they were influenced by world mourning fashion and customs. Several English magazines outlined the length of various mourning periods. The Gentlewoman, for example, recommended fifteen months mourning for a daughter who lost a parent: six in crape, six in black and three in half mourning. Different magazines outlined different schedules, which proved to be quite confusing for the mourner who didn't want to dress inappropriately. Women wore no jewelry during the initial phase, deep mourning, but a booming fashion and jewelry market emerged for the later stages. Mourning was a respectful, yet fashionable practice; women were quite interested in wearing attractive mourning dress and accessories.

For mourning accessories, jewelry items made from the hair of a deceased friend or loved one became hugely popular. Pamphlets featuring hairworking patterns assisted Victorians with creating their own hair jewelry, if they so desired. The jewelry designs are surprisingly complex and varied for consisting of such humble material as human hair. The pieces could incorporate jet, gold and diamonds for later stages of mourning or lockets for hair or photographs. There was also a large market for mass-produced gold fittings that could be personalized with engraving or monograms, so the jewelry items could be commissioned as well. There was some distrust, however, of professional hairworkers; there was a widespread problem of hairworkers neglecting to use the deceased person's hair. Instead, they would sell "custom-made" pieces actually made from purchased bulk hair.

Hair jewelry functioned as a keepsake of the dead and as a memento mori, a reminder that death was an ever-present possibility; the wearer was constantly reminded that she should lead a good life because death could strike without warning. Often a wearer would add more hair pieces to a glass-covered brooch when additional relatives or friends passed away. Hair jewelry was not always worn to commemorate the dead; lovers also wore pieces made from the couple's hair.

There are many excellent examples of hair jewelry in Historic Northampton's collection. An examination of the various styles of hair jewelry tells us a lot about the jewelry's construction, function, symbolism and meaning.

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