Monday, October 20, 2014

Hair Raising! Mourning Jewelry Resources at the Adrian G. Marcuse Library

In anticipation for Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire opening at the Anna Wintour Costume Center at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this week, I wanted to devote this blog entry to my favorite kind of mourning accessory, hair jewelry.   Hair jewelry interests me so much because I find the pieces to be fascinating, touching and frankly, very eerie!    

Picture of two hair brooches in a glass jewelry tray, I took at the Brimfield Antique Show in Massachusetts this May.

Wearing symbolic jewelry to mark events of grief and loss date back to Middle Ages but particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, hair would be taken from the corpse to be incorporated into pieces of jewelry (Miller, 2008).  In the middle of the eighteenth century, jewelers would take the hair and weave, braid or mount it behind framed pieces of glass to be worn as a brooch, locket, bracelet or ring.  By the ninetieth century, hair was not only mounted but was weaved into three dimensional objects that could be used as a watch band, chain, charm or earrings.  Not only did the hair serve as memento of a loved one, hair was also a good medium for making jewelry because it could be used and manipulated in a decorative way (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2006).   Locks of hair are very personal and carry significant meaning.  The person may have passed but you still have a piece of them in their hair.  Miller (2008) states “Hair is dead matter and as such persists beyond the life-span of the human body, allowing a range of meanings, both public and private, to be interwoven into these intricate objects … it is the marginal vestiges of the human body possessing their own material endurance (teeth, hair and bones) which come to be employed in the production of personal and holy relics (para 7 & 8).”

Mourning jewelry was at its most popular in England after the death of Prince Albert in December 1861. Queen Victoria went into deep mourning and the people of England imitated this for their own bereavements.  In the United States the use of mourning jewelry increased with the outbreak of the Civil War which coincided with the black mourning jewelry being used in England. During the Civil War as the soldiers left home to fight, they would leave a lock of hair with their families which upon death the hair would be made into jewelry (Harran, 1997).

Hair jewelry may seem really creepy and morbid but our reactions only show how emotionally significant these pieces are.   Looking at the pieces in the context of their time, mourning jewelry mirrors the lives and items of the people who wore it.  It brought comfort having a token to remember a loved one but also served as a reminder to the living of the inevitability of death (Harran, 1997). 

Beautiful Examples of Hair Jewelry at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Brooch ca. 1850 (on display)
Brooch 1868 (on display)

Books on Mourning Jewelry at the Adrian G. Marcuse Library

Brett, Mary.  Fashionable mourning jewelry, clothing & customs. Call number: 739.27BRE
Peter, Mary.  Collecting Victorian jewellery.  Call number: 739 PET
Taylor, Lou.  Mourning dress: a costume and social history. Call number: 393.9TAY
Goldthorpe, Caroline. From Queen to Empress: Victorian dress 1837-1877: an exhibition at the Costume Institute, December 15, 1988-April 16, 1989.  Call number: 390 GOL
Sherrow, Victoria. Encyclopedia of hair : a cultural history.  391.5 SHE (Reference Stacks)


Harran, J., & Harran, S. (December, 1997).  Antique Week. Retrieved from
Maker unknown: Brooch [American] (2000.557). (October, 2006).   In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved from 
Miller, J. (2008). Hair without a Head: Disembodiment and the Uncanny. In Hair: Styling, Culture and Fashion. Retrieved from 

Just for fun – check out Leila’s Hair Museum – a unique museum dedicated to hair work:

Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire will run from October 21, 2014 – February 1, 2015.

Posted on October 20, 2014 I Blog post by Lauren Gavin, M.L.S. (Technical Services/Reference Librarian)