Artists have been incorporating human hair into their projects for hundreds of years, and 19th century Victorian hair wreaths took this practice to a whole new level. Despite these memento mori's fragility, many examples of Victorian women's hair wreath craftsmanship have survived into the 21st century and are housed in museum exhibits and antique shops around the world. Take a closer look at how these romantic centerpieces came to be considered a common practice for middle-class Victorian families and evolved into a beautifully-morbid oddity of the collecting world.
Queen Victoria and the Cult of the Dead
Many people associate the Victorian period with the Romantic morbidity of authors like Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and many others, but it was actually Queen Victoria's forty-year long mourning process that made death a cultural phenomenon. Upon her beloved husband's death in 1861, Queen Victoria entered into a life-long period of mourning; inspired by their Queen's dedication, cultural mourning practices like wearing black and creating memento moris (items that remember a lost loved one) swept through the English middle-classes and soon traveled abroad to other western nations. Eventually, the practice of wearing a loved one's hair encased in a locket or brooch would evolve into the artistic, textile-reminiscent trade of making hair wreaths.
Victorian Hair Wreaths
Generally, middle-class Victorian women would practice the skills needed to thread hair wreaths while learning other 'ladies' crafts like needlepoint and embroidery. Since most people didn't outsource their hair wreaths, it was important for the women of the family to be skilled in making these elaborate designs. These hair wreath designs incorporated typical Romantic motifs from nature like flowers and leaves, and were meant to be displayed in the home in some way. Since there was a strong cultural importance surrounding a person's hair, people usually kept their hair after each haircut so as to have their locks ready to be fastened into lockets or wreaths. Interestingly, these wreaths were not always used to commemorate a lost loved one and could be made with multiple family members' or community members' hair strands to celebrate a group's achievements. However, as the art was absorbed by the growing capitalist industrialism of the early 20th century, it soon faded into obscurity.
Crafting Victorian Hair Wreaths
In spite of its premature death, Victorian hair wreath techniques have been recreated by some dedicated contemporary artists. Courtney Lane's company, Never Forgotten, specializes in creating "modern works of Victorian style sentimental hairwork for clients on a custom basis," according to one interview. As both a historian and self-proclaimed professional weirdo, Lane tours the country giving lectures about the lost craft to curious individuals, and if you're feeling inspired by Lane's work, you can check out the instructions for hair wreathing printed in the 1860 publication Art Recreations by Mrs. L. R. Urbino and Henry Day and take a stab at threading your very own hair wreath.
Collecting Victorian Hair Wreaths
Unlike most historical artifacts, Victorian hair wreaths have largely survived to the 21st century fully intact. Since these familial items were highly sentimental, it was likely that family members would pass these wreaths down from generation to generation. Many city museums and historical societies have Victorian hair wreaths in their collections that originated from local families. The lasting aesthetic appeal of these hair embroideries have also made them sought after collector's items, and finely crafted, large hair wreaths can be worth an impressive sum.
Virtually Visit Victorian Hair Wreaths
Thankfully for the wonders of the internet, you don't have to buy your own Victorian hair wreath to spend some time analyzing their craftsmanship. Multiple public history institutions, like these listed below, have some of their Victorian hair wreaths in online collections that you can visit with the click of a button.
- The Gouveneur Museum's Easton Hair Wreath
- The Everhart Museum's Mourning Hair Wreath
- The Clarke Museum's Exhibit on Victorian Hair Art
Evaluating Victorian Hair Wreaths
While the collector's market for Victorian hair wreaths is rather niche, it can be lucrative for sellers. Most Victorian mourning wreaths are estimated to be worth $100-$200 at minimum, and elaborate wreaths are worth higher values because of their sheer size. One Victorian hair wreath which included the ambrotype of the deceased sold for nearly $200, and a shadowbox hair wreath sold for a little over $200 in 2020. Even hair wreaths shaped into unique designs can bring a significant profit, like a Victorian hair wreath that was threaded into the shape of a lyre that sold for a little more than $150. Therefore, if you're interested in hanging your own Victorian hair wreath above your fireplace mantle, then there are numerous, reasonably priced options available.
Victorian Hair Wreaths as Modern Interior Design
If you're interested in taking your interior design to a new, Romantic level, then you should definitely hunt down one of these unique Victorian oddities. Thanks to their dainty designs, all of your visitors will be none the wiser to the morbid history of the antique embroidery hanging on your wall.