Your humble Authoress pictured with a framed Gimp-work hair scene with symbolic turquoise from 1856. This one can be found at Lanyon Homestead near Tharwa.
Written by Eleanor Rainer
This piece was originally published in ‘Memento Mori’, Bossy’s 2021 print edition.
If you are anything like me, you like handmade art, crafts, and jewellery. And if you are anything like a Victorian mourner, you love them to be filled with the hair of your deceased loved ones. No really, this was a thing. It seems odd to modern sensibilities to keep the hair of someone who died and wear it on yourself as a token of grief, but it also makes a lot of sense—hair doesn’t decay easily and collecting it avoids that tricky conundrum of desecrating a human body. So, in times where you didn’t have the luxury of numerous photographs and videos to remember and grieve your family by, why not keep a permanent piece of them with you? If you’re still with me, let me introduce you to the weird and wacky world of mourning jewellery.
Love of the macabre hasn’t always been isolated to your local goth population. In the 1600s, Europe saw a social fascination with death. Plagues, wars, religious persecution, and a literal miniature ice age caused many people to become focused on death, dying, and the frailty of life. Vanitas-style paintings and jewellery with motifs of death—including images of skulls, skeletons, hourglasses, graves, and coffins—were a popular ascetic, designed as a ‘memento mori’ to remind people that human life is fleeting and that they should abandon earthly pleasures and be their best self by turning their attention towards the immortality of the soul and the afterlife. Apparently, people in the 17th century were as aesthetic as any modern goth reading the works of Mary Shelley for the first time.
Memento mori skull watch, c. 1600.
If mourning jewellery was an aesthetic in the 17th century, it became a way of life in the 19th thanks to Queen Victoria establishing a veritable institution for mourning after the death of her beloved husband, Prince Consort Albert, in 1861. Victorian memento mori were not as macabre as those in the 1600s, and far more focused on personal grief and remembrance of deceased loved ones than remembering one’s own mortality. Don’t get me wrong, though; the Victorians took mourning very seriously. Mourning had an extremely strict dress code: women in particular had a social requirement to wear black clothing for the ‘deep’ stage of mourning, which could last anywhere between three months to two and a half years; after that, they were allowed to add small amounts of white or purple to their attire to indicate the ‘half-mourning’ stage. Wearing mourning clothes could potentially last years; Queen Victoria herself is famous for having worn black for the rest of her life after Albert’s death. This fashion even affects how we mourn today—it’s rare to see any other coloured outfit than black at a Western funeral.
The mourning dress Queen Victoria was wearing in 1894, 33 years after her husband’s death. Image taken from The Met Museum (public domain).
While the dress was important, mourning jewellery incorporating the deceased’s hair in extremely delicate, artistic, and symbolic patterns also became popular tokens to wear and display. Semi-precious gems like jet and vulcanite were popular for their dark colours, turquoise was a stone that meant “thinking of you”, and pearls were popular as they represented the tears of the mourner. To a Victorian widow, these pieces—often made by her own hands or crafted by another woman—were an expression of the tender belief that neither time nor death can destroy love.
A Victorian mourning brooch with gold, enamel, pearls, and hair. C. 1860. Image taken from the New York Historical Society (public domain).
Unfortunately, few things remain innocent, and mourning jewellery became increasingly dramatic and—dare I say it—ostentatious. As beautiful and symbolic as these intricate pieces became, by the late 19th century mourning jewellery was as much a show of fashionable style as it was for mourning your mother. Mourning jewellery lost popularity during World War I, as photography became more accessible and the need for a physical piece of your loved one dwindled. And with difficulty of access to the remains of soldiers as well as the amount of mass grieving and wartime rationing experienced by millions of women at the time, perhaps the idea of showing off the expensive jewel you had—made with your late husband’s hair, at that—was a little too on the nose.
Mourning jewellery experienced brief resurgences throughout the 20th century, but it never really came back into fashion like it had during the Victorian era. However, in the age of COVID-19, it will be interesting to see just how much our mourning practices change and adapt in response. Frankly, this Authoress would welcome a more death-positive society, and with a new rise in appreciation for aestheticism in modern culture, perhaps mourning jewellery is ripe for revival?