Hair to Stay: A Look at Victorian Hair Art

By Kat Kurylko, Research Assistant
February 2, 2021

Brooch with black enamel for mourning.

Trends popularized by Queen Victoria often made their way across the Atlantic Ocean and were adopted as part of American cultural norms of the time. From tartan plaids to a white wedding dress, Queen Victoria’s style choices were very influential. One of the more common trends made even more popular by the young queen was in the wearing and crafting of hair jewelry. Hair jewelry witnessed a surge in popularity in the 1850s and was worn regularly on occasions ranging from weddings to funerals and throughout the mourning process.

Popular magazines, such as Godey’s Lady’s Book, provided instructions on how to create one’s own design. However, Self-Instruction in the Art of Hair Work, published in 1867, proved to be the most popular hair art publication as it included instructions for dozens of designs in various levels of difficulty. Creating hair work jewelry became a fashionable pastime as ladies learned how to transform hair into small works of art using made-to-order kits. Men also wore hair work as accessories, often commissioning items like watch fobs out of their wives’ hair.

The popularity of hair work jewelry led to increased demand, especially for hair that held no sentimental attachments that could be used for practice. Commercial hair workers offered a variety of colors, charging according to length and quality. Most colors brought anywhere from $15 to $100 per pound. However, quality white hair, preferred in wig-making, and gray hair was valued at $100-$200. Cleanliness was also of great importance in the commercial hair business. Before shipping, a “washing, scouring, and cleansing” process ensured that quality and proper hygiene standards were met before being sent to the buyer.

Hair could be woven into a variety of designs for earrings as well as pendants and brooches.

Hair work started falling out of fashion following WWI and was nearly driven out of existence during the Great Depression. Recently, however, hair work has witnessed resurgence in niche art and history circles. Enthusiasts are reintroducing the public to this largely forgotten art form by teaching crafting classes to a new generation and accepting commissions that foster appreciation of the art.