Designs Made With Human Hair Pay Homage to Victorian Hairwork

From trendy rainbow tones to intricately shaved logos and designs, hair styling is an art. But artist Spencer Merolla explores what happens when instead of acting as a wearable canvas, the hair itself is used as the art medium.

Merolla’s work is inspired by the practice of hairwork in which Victorian women honored deceased loved ones by turning their hair into chic bits of jewelry. We’re accustomed to private grieving in modern times, but public displays of sincere mourning such as hairwork were not only Victorian custom, they were Victorian fashion. It was common for a widower to wear his wife’s hair as a watch fob, or for families to weave tresses from their many departed into wreaths. They would then display these wreaths in the parlor like a once-living memory quilt.

In her Hair Work series, Merolla explores how our mourning process compares to the public displays of sorrow of the past. She transforms hair into complex designs, including delicate pinwheels, dizzying triangulations, and several shapes based on the video game Q*bert. (They remind me of staring at my mother’s hair or wood paneling through a kaleidoscope when I was little.)

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Working with hair is the most exciting part for Merolla. But it is more than just a novelty; the work is highly symbolic. As she says explains in her artist statement:

“That the hair must be severed from the body to be worked in this fashion is a compelling aspect of the practice for me. With few exceptions, the provenance of antique hairwork is now unknown. As a result, it loses its essential quality of referring to a specific person, while still being a distinctively “personal” object. In a sense, the story of hairwork is a testament not of our capacity to remember our lost loved ones, but of our ultimate inability to hold onto them.”

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Bereavement, as you can see, is a common theme of Merolla’s work. She is currently seeking donations of clothing worn to funerals, wakes, shivahs, and other mourning rituals to complete her next piece. See more work on her website.

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