Wearing jewelry made out of the hair of a deceased loved one was a popular fad in the late 1800s, and proved more enduring than miniskirts or mood rings.
The art of mourning — wearing black, crepe weeping veils and hair jewelry — was made fashionable by Britain’s Queen Victoria who lost her husband Albert, who died of typhoid in 1861.
Though Queen Victoria is widely credited with making it popular, people in Europe, the Middle East and the United States wore hair jewelry for centuries before the Queen was born and the exact origin of the art form is up for debate.
In Europe it was customary for families to collect pieces of hair from several generations of relatives and weave the pieces into a wreath.
Often, the wreath also included intricate hair-woven flowers and was shaped like a horseshoe, always pointed up, to keep luck in the family.
Before photo albums, making a hair wreath was a way to maintain a family tree.
Other cultures used the hair of the deceased in different ways to mark the passing of a special person.
In Iran there’s evidence that the tradition of hewing hair as a symbol of mourning dates back to 300 to 500 BC.
“The tradition of hewing hair as a symbol of mourning has long been prevalent among Bakhtiari women, particularly at the loss of a prominent member of the tribe or the martyrdom of the youth,” writes Bijhan Shahmoradi at the Foundation for Iranian Studies.
“This tradition must be viewed in the context of the old belief in parts of Iran about the similarity between the life and growth of human hair and plants.
“Well-groomed hair is generally considered an indication of the individual’s inner happiness and attention to his or her outward appearance, while disheveled or hewn hair is deemed to be a sign of the individual’s abnormal state.
“The hope for revival or resurrection of the dead may also be related to the growth of hair that inevitably follows its hewing in the ritual.”
In stories and myths, hair is a symbol for strength and power. Long flowing hair is a symbol of freedom and cutting somebody’s hair against their will is seen as abusive.
In the Bible Samson’s strength is in his hair and he loses his power when his seven locks are shaved.
In the Victorian era, hair jewelry was prized because it was thought to contain some of the vitality of the person from whence the hair came.
Throughout Europe there were workshops where fashionable items were made.
Even though most jewelry was made from a family member’s hair, there was still a need for great amounts of hair for braids and switches that women wanted to purchase for their coiffeurs.
Buyers of human hair travelled about in the countryside and purchased hair from poor peasants, or tricked women into having their hair cut in exchange for some pretty trinket.
The fashion died out in the 1920s.
The MacBride Museum has a number of braids and locks of human hair in its collection.
The most exquisite piece is a watch fob made from gold, metal and weaved human hair. Not much is known about the history of this item except that it is unique and it was donated to the Museum by Mrs. A.L. Burke in 1953.
This column is provided by the MacBride Museum of Yukon History. Each week it will explore a different morsel of Yukon’s modern history. For more information, or to comment on anything in this column e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.