VICTORIANS MADE THINGS OUT OF DEAD PEOPLE'S HAIR
The Victorians had a very different relationship with their mortality than we do today. Medical advances were new enough that the rate of direct contact with death was comparably high. Shielded and detached, our sensibilities have become conditioned to a cartoonish exaggeration of death. But the spiritualist undercurrent of the Victorian era resulted in very imaginative mourning rituals. Saving the hair of a lost loved one in a locket may at first sound familiar and romantic, but elaborately constructed earrings, bracelets and broaches may cross the threshold into otherworldly. Mourning wreaths developed out of this tradition, where communities would gather the locks of their dearly departed and give them to professional wreath makers to transform into heavenly floral cascades.
One of the frame shops I worked for had a regular influx of antiques. When this hair mourning wreath was brought in I was beside myself and insisted on having full access to the piece. It looked bedraggled hunched within a frame that was too small for it, but I could see the intended gracefulness of it's patterns. As I removed the wreath from the original red velvet backing, something flew off. I stopped everything and grabbed the shop owner for a second pair of eyes. Hidden among the wilting flowers was a small butterfly made in the same style as the rest of the wreath. Our observations concluded that it likely had not been attached to the wreath itself. Perhaps it was attached elsewhere on the mat, fluttering above the flowers. After consulting the customer I omitted it from the wreath and returned it separately.
Under the right conditions human hair can last a long time, but over the last century this garden of human remains had not been treated with the utmost care. Insects had infiltrated the inside of the frame, and though none remained alive, their damage to hair strands could not be undone. I dislodged insect shells and carefully reshaped the bent flowers which were made of thin twisted wire and adorned with tiny seed beads. I made sure to wear gloves to prevent transferring skin oils that could further deteriorate the hair over time. The asymmetry of the horseshoe was confounding at first, but after much careful deliberation I managed to achieve an evenness I could live with.
The lives of several people are commemorated in this memento mori, and although the record of who they were was lost, I'd like to think that, with our efforts, this wreath continues to emit something of their essence.