It’s fashionable to dismiss Freud these days – ‘Fraud’, my cognitive psychology professor at university used to call him. But before I did a psychology degree, I studied history and one of my history tutors observed that he developed his theories during a period where whilst sex was a taboo subject, death was not. These days, that has reversed, so that now death is a taboo subject. Which means that a great deal of things that the Victorians wallowed in, that gave them comfort strikes us as uncomfortable, even creepy. The practice of going into formal mourning for months on end seems morbid and unnecessary to many of us; the posing and photographing of dead relatives morbidly bizarre.
Mourning jewellery has been around since the 16th century but it became most popular following the death of Prince Albert in 1861, when Queen Victoria and her court went into heavy mourning for decades. This sustained an entire industry in the production of jet and jet jewellery for the town of Whitby in Yorkshire for years, but that’s not the whole story when it comes to mourning jewellery. Whilst browsing the pages of an auction catalogue, I came something known as hair mourning jewellery. Now, the idea of a lock of hair kept in a locket as a memento, not just of someone who has gone, but perhaps of their own wispy baby hair, or the hair of a loved one is not a strange one. However, the Victorians took the idea of hair as memento mori well beyond this, creating elaborate pieces of jewellery out of hair, often from the hair of a deceased loved one.
I have to say I have had to challenge my own revulsion on this one, because they do disgust me. I saw these pieces and just thought, ‘ugh’. And yet I am not revolted by the idea of a wig of human hair, or a hair piece, so what is it? The association with death added to a kind of sense that it’s all a bit grubby? To the Victorians there was nothing macabre or strange about such works; they were more about celebrating your connections to others, about sentiment and emotion.
And in fact, the fashion for hair jewellery was not just confined to mourning – elaborate pieces, sometimes made with hair from different people, acted as sentimental family trees. Women wove their own pieces, with patterns found in magazines, just as you might knit a sweater or crochet a pan-holder today. As for grubby, we live in very sanitary times, compared to almost the entirety of human history. In a time where heavy clothing would not be routinely washed in order to preserve it, and even the wealthy didn’t bathe as frequently as we do, there would likely be no association of dirt and a lack of hygiene with such items.
In fact, hair is not a bad material for jewellery in general and mourning in particular – ifyou’re looking for something that maintains your connection to someone who has gone, hair is both very personal and very decay resistant – as can be seen from the above pieces, all over 100 years old. If you want to know more about it, you can check out the website for the Victorian Hairwork Society here, buy yourself some brand-new non-antique hair jewellery here or grab yourself a copy of Love Entwined: The Curious History of Hair Work by Dr. Helen Sheumaker. As for me, I’ll be putting it in the basket of things that are interesting but I don’t need to own.