Flesh rots to bone, taking our faces and figures with it. But clip a lock of hair, and it will keep its color for decades, even centuries. Thus, art crafted from hair—a 19th-century tradition in which tresses were braided into jewelry, looped to resemble flower petals, even ground up for use in pigments—remains frozen in time.
Hair art has its roots in the 17th and 18th century, when high infant mortality rates meant that “death was everywhere,” writes Karen Bachmann in an essay for the recent book Death: A Graveside Companion. “The keeping and saving of hair for future use in jewelry or other commemorative craft (such as wreaths) was common.” But it wasn’t until the Victorian era that “the ‘cult of the dead’ became almost a mania in Britain.”
This was spurred by Queen Victoria herself, who ruled the British Empire from 1837 until her death in 1901. “In 1861, her beloved husband, Prince Consort Albert, died, upon which the Queen entered into a state of formal mourning that lasted the rest of her life,” Joanna Ebenstein, founder of New York’s Morbid Anatomy Museum and editor of Death: A Graveside Companion, told Artsy. “This encouraged a fashion for mourning in popular culture on both sides of the Atlantic that lingered until the turn of the 20th century.” (In the United States, the high death toll of the Civil War further fueled this trend.)