victorian mourning dress

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Collection’s Highlight: Wedding and Moruning Dress 

According to family history this is the wedding outfit of Mrs. Rudolph Gross.  At the time of her wedding (date unknown), her sister had recently died.  So this dress is an interesting combination of two strong traditions: marriage and mourning. 

Bodice, 1885-1889, velvet and silk, L: 21 in. The Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of George Christman, N0480.1967a.

Skirt, 1885-1889, velvet and silk, L: 44 in. The Fenimore Art Museum, Cooperstown, New York, Gift of George Christman, N0480.1967a.

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1) Memento Mori rosary, early 1500s.

2) Full mourning dress fashion plate, 1780s, France.

3) Mourning ring, 1773, England.

4) Mourning apron fashion plate, 1860s.

5) Mourning brooch, 1800s.

6) Mourning fabric and paper, 1890.

7) Mourning locket, 1800s.

8) Details of a half mourning dress, 1892-95.

9) Memorial brooch, late 1800s.

10) Woman whose relative died in WWI, 1917.

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1) Memorial poesy ring with the engraving, “The cruel seas, remember, took him in November 1592.″

2) Mourning shawl, 1857-60.

3) Mourning ring, 1728.

4) Child’s mourning coat, 1865-69.

5) Mourning pendant, 1790s.

6) Half mourning ensemble, 1878.

7) Memorial brooch, 1800s.

8) Child’s mourning dress, 1882.

9) Mourning brooch, late 1800s, England.

10) Mourning fan, 1885, France.

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Welcome to another exciting episode of FRIDAY FASHION FACT! Today we’re going to be talking about a fairly obscure piece of fashion history- hair jewelry. That’s right, in times gone by, people would wear human hair around their wrists, hanging from their ears, and wrapped around their fingers. Sounds strange, doesn’t it? It was a very common practice, though, and many of the pieces created were extremely elaborate and quite beautiful.

It is a common belief that hair jewelry was created for mourning. This is not completely inaccurate, but it is far from the whole truth. Hair held strong significance and symbolism in many cultures across the world. Since hair takes centuries upon centuries to decompose, it was a common symbol of the eternal. This is where the tradition of giving a lock of hair to a loved one stems from. Since hair comes from the head, it also held myth that the one who held the hair had a sort of influence over the giver. Though it has become a romance genre trope to see lovers give each other a lock of hair, in reality, locks were also given to friends, family members- anyone with a deep, personal connection.

Scandinavian folklore commonly spoke of the power of hair, and thus people in that region would carry the locks of their loved ones around with them. In the Early Renaissance Age, the curls of hair would be placed into lockets, often worn on necklaces or pinned over the heart. Shortly after, instead of putting the hair inside of jewelery, it became part of the jewelry itself. Sometimes the hair would be twisted and knotted, then set into a pendant, or it would be woven like a rope, becoming the band. These pieces that were woven into bands required much longer locks of hair, and so they were more commonly made once a love one passed away, and were worn as mourning jewelry.

While hair jewelery was not uncommon from the Renaissance through the 18th Century, the style exploded in the Victorian Age. There are a few reasons for this. At the beginning of the 19th Century, elaborate hair styles, including men’s wigs, had fallen out of style, as did ostentatious jewelry. To save their livelihoods, wig-makers and jewelry-makers paired up to create sentimental pieces. This was the start of hair jewelry’s rise in popularity. Later in the century, Prince Albert famously gave Queen Victoria a charm bracelet, with each heart charm containing a lock of each of their childrens’ hair. When Albert died at a young age, the entire country went into mourning, bringing mourning fashion into style. It was at this point that hair jewelry worn as a mourning piece became extremely popular.

The style faded out around World War I, when all mourning fashion faded from popularity. Today, most people see hair jewelry as “creepy,” but it’s important to remember the amount of emotion that was once attached to these cherished pieces.

Want to learn more about hair jewelry? Check out these books:

Sentimental Jewellery, by Anne Louise Luthi

Collector’s Encyclopedia of Hairwork Jewelry, by C. Jeanenne Bell

Have a question about fashion history that you want answered in the next FRIDAY FASHION FACT? Just click the ASK button at the top of the page!

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1) Memento Mori pendant, 1600s.

2) Mourning fashion plate, 1844, France.

3) Mourning pin, 1790-1825.

4) Widow’s indoor caps, 1870s.

5) Mourning brooch, late 1800s, England.

6) “Woman Mourning Child,” early 1880s.

7) Mourning brooch, 1780.

8) Full mourning bonnet, 1860s.

9) Mourning ring, 1800s.

10) Mourning ensemble, 1900, Vienna, Austria.