In the 1800s, hair work was a very common and normal art form as well as a fashionable way to remember people who had died. This process was meticulous and thoroughly planned, and patterns and instructions were readily available just as quilting or sewing patterns were abundant in the 1950s.
Wearing handmade hair jewelry and accessories was a personal way to show your relationship to someone who had passed or who was living, and to have a sentimental memory of those people even when they were not around. Hair was chosen as the medium because it was easily worked with and is mostly “decay resistant.” This art also was being made at a time when funerals were almost always done at home and people were used to being around bodies much more than they are today, so using the hair of a loved one for a craft such as this was not stigmatized as it would be in many current societies.
Earrings, brooches, bracelets, rings, watch straps, and necklaces were common accessories worn by both men and women, but intricate wreaths meant to be hung or framed were also often made. The wreaths would usually be made for a person or family who had passed, and would sometimes include photographs of the people, as a way to display the memory of them in your home and even to show a family tree.
Before its decline in popularity in the 1920s, books were published about hair art techniques and designs, special tools and wooden blocks and looms were made just for weaving hair, and parties and classes even took place for women to get together and create with their friends.
Today, Victorian hair art is having a bit of a resurgence in that there are classes being taught at universities and museums on a regular basis on how to make these intricate hair accessories. There is even a museum of hair wreaths and art called Leilas Hair Museum in Missouri.
Currently, there is an entire exhibit about hair art at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia called Woven Strands: The Art of Human Hair Work, that will be up until September 16, 2018. Along with that exhibit, there will be a hair art symposium on April 8, 2018, and several classes throughout the next few months that have all been sold out. Our own ceramics professor, Gina Rice, will be attending one of these classes in late February, so be sure to ask her about what she learned (she’s very excited for it)!