I have a lot of hair. I think it’s probably one of the first things people notice about me. It’s long, and fluffy, and sometimes if the humidity is right, it so big that it could be doing cartwheels across David Coverdale’s Lamborghini in 1987. It’s also the piece of me that you’re probably going to be stuck with if we spend any time together–I leave strands of hair on your floor, in your drains, I’ve probably knit some of it, by accident, into a special gift I’ve made for you…hell, if I’ve cooked for you, it’s probably even gotten in your food. It’s okay! I wash my hair! Occasionally.
Over the years I’ve I bet I’ve lost enough hair to craft something spectacular with the resulting mass, and I imagine that there’s someone out there (not you guys, but) who might be kinda grossed out by the idea–but at one time, such a practice was not only considered commonplace but also an extremely romantic, or poignant gesture! I had always thought of hairwork, either mourning art or of the romantic keepsake variety, as a beautiful memento from a bygone era that one stumbled across in antique malls and hopefully had enough coins in their purse carefully wrap up and take home to rest on a small shelf of oddities; it never even occurred to me to collect my own stray locks and create a tender token from them, in the here and now, until I learned of Courtney Lane.
Courtney is a Victorian hair artist, historian, and professional weirdo based out of Kansas City who has dedicated her life to pursuing knowledge of hairwork techniques as well as the peculiar history behind the art form. By creating modern pieces of Victorian hairwork and educating the public about the often misunderstood background, Courtney seeks to ensure that this sentimental tradition is Never Forgotten.
Curious as to the sentimental significance we attach to our hair, and the heartfelt art which results from that? What about relevance of such practices today? Read on for our recent interview with Courtney and her fond fascination with this exquisite artform, as well as her thoughts on the profoundly human impulse to want to hang on to pieces of those we’ve loved, once they’ve passed, and to create something beautiful from the very depths of our grief.
“Love is a complicated emotion and grief itself comes from the deepest place of love,” Courtney shares, “so if we can love and mourn freely by harnessing the sentiment of hair, then we should.”
OK, so first things first! Your bio proudly pronounces you a Professional Weirdo. Please tell us your weird journey and how it became a way of life and a means of making a living for you?
Well, for starters, anyone who knew me as a child can attest that I’ve always been “the weird one”, and even at a young age it was a title that I owned with pride. Beyond jumping at every chance to wear crazy costumes or making a spectacle of myself in public in an attempt to embarrass my friends, I was also the kid who enjoyed my trip to New Orleans far more than my trip to Disney World. In New Orleans, I attended a ball where I found the elaborate masquerade masks to be infinitely more appealing than the masks of cartoon characters, and touring the mausoleums of the cemeteries was far more exciting to me than riding the teacups. At a very young age, it sparked in me not only an interest in a darker side of life, but also a profound love of history. From this point on, I grew a special adoration for mourning customs throughout history and the aesthetic of the Victorian era. Naturally, hair art became one of my fondest fascinations.
Art has always been an important part of my life. I have been involved in dance and theatre all my life and later began choreographing and teaching dance lessons. I do still teach dance lessons a few evening a week for the pure love of the art and my students. There was a time when I wanted to be a dancer full time, but unfortunately due to disability from a genetic disorder, it became apparent that I couldn’t physically continue that lifestyle.
I had many strange and creative jobs that I enjoyed over the years, so when I eventually landed in my first mundane job at a call center, I decided to rebel against the corporate setting and be as weird and eccentric as I wished. I wrote with a quill and ink, I drank from an antique teacup all day, and I would often participate in shenanigans like dancing down the aisles while my colleagues were on the phone just to prove to my manager that it does NOT take two to tango.
Dancing my solo tango wasn’t even the first time I decided to be a creative smart aleck at work. We had an “80’s” dress up day where I came in full Victoriana, because they didn’t specify which century. Having not learned their lesson, they later organized a “90’s” day. So, naturally, I donned full theater makeup, a body suit, a grey curly wig, and a tennis ball walker to come to work as a 90 year old.
Although I made every excuse I could to be creative in this setting, I did eventually decide that if I was going to have a mundane job, I wanted to at least work for myself and not a corporation. Eventually, I decided to open up my own insurance agency.
When I first started working for myself in insurance, I knew I didn’t love it, but I was pretty good at it. Many of my new clients loved that I wore black lipstick and Victorian mourning gowns, and I was often told that I was the most interesting insurance agent they’d ever met. Unfortunately, this didn’t stop the district manager for the brand of insurance I sold from telling me that the company didn’t approve of my black lipstick and that I needed to appear “more professional”. Even when I was in a management role at the call center, dressing exactly the same, nobody accused me of being unprofessional, so being talked down to like this when this was supposed to be my own business was discouraging to say the least. Through a series of even more unforgivable exchanges with this company that followed, I knew I couldn’t stay.
It was at this point that I had a choice to make. Should I take my insurance license elsewhere and sell a different product? Should I apply for a completely unrelated job? No, none of those options felt right. By this point in time, I’d already been studying hair art intently for many years, and I’d more recently begun practicing the techniques. I loved doing it, and to my surprise, I was actually quite good at it right from the start. So, I decided to sell my insurance agency and pursue hair art full time. It was a decision that was just as exciting as it was terrifying, but I knew I was finally home the first time I told a stranger that I made art and jewelry out of human hair, and their response was, “Oh…that’s…weird.”
Hairwork was a popular mourning practice, historically, as well as an important form of romantic and family keepsakes in the past–but you want to ensure that today, these practices are “never forgotten”. Why is such a practice still important and relevant today and what drives this need for you, personally, to ensure that it’s not lost to the sands of time?
My initial interest in studying hairwork was prompted by my curiosity as to why we don’t currently use hair to make art on a large scale as we used to. I was quick to note that we still had a custom of saving a lock of hair from your baby’s first haircut, but once the hair is saved, we usually just stick it in a book or an envelope and rarely look at it again. When I first became interested in hairwork, it was under the false assumption that it was a purely Victorian practice which was representative of the European aesthetic and culture of the time, and I thought that perhaps saving hair was merely a habitual carryover from a bygone era.
However, It did not take long until my research brought me back hundreds of years prior to the 1800s. From there, I found instances of hair being used in a variety of tribal art all over the world and even earlier evidence of hair being clumped together with mud to make amulets in ancient Egyptian times.
It was this point when my fascination began to shift from Victorian mourning customs to the power of hair. Long before what we recognize as hair art came to be, there are instances of people using hair in their cultural rituals. Of course, this came in many forms from how you wear your hair, when you cut your hair, and why you save your hair. These rituals vary from culture to culture and from era to era, but I quickly learned that it is a natural and expected part of humanity to attach sentimental significance to our hair.
Everything was put into perfect perspective when I took a good look at our modern society with this new realization. People still save hair, and it’s not only from baby’s first haircut. I’ve spoken with many people who have saved their own hair after they’ve cut it off, and this is especially true amongst people who have invested a lot of time and care into their hair by growing it especially long, dying it a difficult color, or wearing it in locks. Often times, people who save their own hair can’t quite articulate why they did so. They only know that it felt right.
I’ve also heard from many people who have felt the urge to save a lock of hair from their deceased loved ones. To my surprise, these were all people who were not previously familiar with the custom of using hair as a mourning token, and they felt as though they were morbid and strange for wanting to keep the hair.
All of this is evidence to me that saving hair in an inherently human impulse, but just as discussing death and grief are often taboo topics in today’s society, hair also has a negative stigma associated with it. From the moment it’s cut off our head, it’s labeled as a disgusting thing, and in a culture that often seeks to hide death and silence grief, how then is an individual supposed to justify saving hair from their deceased loved one as a means to process their grief?
If anything, I want to convey that keeping hair is normal and it is beautiful, and I seek to do this through historical education and access to custom hairwork services and classes on hair art techniques. I truly believe that giving in to our little compulsions to keep a part of our loved ones is something that should be encouraged and celebrated rather than renounced. Love is a complicated emotion and grief itself comes from the deepest place of love, so if we can love and mourn freely by harnessing the sentiment of hair, then we should.
You’ve spoken before to the practice of hairwork as a “spiritual calling”–I Iove that concept! Can you expand upon that for us?
Although I usually do not consider myself to be a particularly spiritual person, there’s no denying that I was impalpably drawn to hairwork. As someone who also collects and restores antique hairwork, I feel a desire to protect and preserve the hair, and this desire transcends my obvious appreciation for the aesthetic of the art. I find beauty in knowing that this hair belonged to someone who was once so fiercely loved that their hair was kept, and even though I never met them and even though I may not know their name, I feel an intense reverence for their memory. This inexplicable attachment to the memory of forgotten strangers is a feeling that seems to be shared amongst many serious collectors of antique hair.
I have a similar sense of fulfilment when I am granted the honor and privilege of working with someone’s hair to make a custom memorial. These are ordinarily people I will never know, and yet I have an opportunity to work with them intimately and almost get to know them in a way while I’m making a memorial for their loved ones to keep.
I’ve come to refer to this feeling as “mortal empathy”. If there is anything that we all share, it is the fact that we will die, and most of us want to leave an impression on this world. We hope that those we leave behind after our death will keep our memory alive, so we are compelled to do the same for others. When we strive to do right by the deceased, it is an intimate connection with their former life, but it is also a personal communion with our own reaper.
Am I correct in assuming that historically this was an art by European people or people of European descent, with typically European people-type hair? I am curious about the prevalence of hairwork in other cultures, and is there room in this modern art of hairwork for people with textured hair, colored hair, etc.?
As I mentioned previously, different cultures throughout history have used hair in a variety of artistic ways, but I would say that hairwork in the Victorian sense that most people think of was predominantly white, middle class people in Europe and America. To put this into perspective, of the thousands of Victorian pieces I’ve viewed, I have seen only two pieces that were made using afro-textured hair. From a historical context, the lack of representation makes sense. The Victorian era, 1837- 1901, was when hairwork peaked, and the American Civil war was fought right in the middle of that timeframe.
So, the lack of textured hair in traditional antique pieces has lead many people to the false assumption that hair from other ethnicities is too difficult to work with and cannot be used in hair art. This is simply not the case. The type and texture of the hair does not prohibit anyone from using their hair for this kind of work, but historically, the social and racial inequality has.
Within the last few years, I’ve seen an increasing interest amongst women of African descent to commission or make their own hair art. Some of this growing interest can be attributed to the natural hair movement which encouraging these women to celebrate the natural texture of their hair even though textured hair has very often been a point of discrimination.
Hair is the embodiment of such an important sense of self for so many people, so I do hope we continue to see growing diversity emerge in our modern age of hair art.
What are some motifs that are common in the antique hairwork that you’ve encountered and collected? And how do those types of motifs stand the test of time? What about more modern motifs–as someone who creates their own hairwork, do you stick with traditional themes or do you create something new and wholly your own, and more in step with the times?
Traditional hairworkers were very strategic about using meaningful imagery in their art. Some mourning motifs were glaringly obvious such as a weeping willow overhanging a grave. Others were less straightforward, such as a broken pillar being used to symbolize a life that was cut short. Some of the less obvious motifs are no longer used, because fewer people recognize the meaning of them.
Some symbolism has remained recognizable through the ages, but are not appealing to a majority of people in modern society. For instance, most people today do not want a skull and crossbones to commemorate their deceased loved ones, but they do know that a skull means death. The concept of memento mori imagery is not nearly as popular in personal instances of loss as it once was. Instead, most people today prefer to use happier images to commemorate the dead.
That said, hairwork today is still a largely unknown option for memorial tokens, so some of my clients are already familiar with the traditional themes and prefer to have a piece made based on the Victorian mementos that they admire. Others may want something that looks more modern, and quite often, I will design a completely new concept based on the personality of the person or animal we’re memorializing.
Hair And Now is your (relatively new) YouTube channel; can you tell us a little bit of what we can expect to find there?
The goal on my channel is explore hair throughout history. My hope is for this to include the different forms hairwork has taken, the sentimental values attached to hair, how the art fell out of fashion, and why we should bring it back.
So far, I’ve touched on some basic history, a few of the most common hairwork techniques used in the Victorian era, and explained tools used for them while referencing antique pieces. I’ve even discussed some unusual hair artifacts such as an incredibly insulting Victorian mustache valentine.
Before long, I hope to branch into other hair-related topics by releasing videos discussing more odd items, how different cultures have ritualized hair, mourning customs, famous people throughout history that have kept hair jewelry, and even medical oddities related to hair!
Also, puns. Expect lots of hair puns.
And you’ve also created a Patreon for those who believe in your mission to educate the public on this often misunderstood craft, and who wish to help! Please share with us some of the goings-on and rewards over there.
One of my most popular rewards on Patreon is designed specifically for supporters to learn the art of hairwork. Every month, I release a new video tutorial demonstrating 1-3 hair art variations. This is a great opportunity for people who are serious about learning a wide variety of hair art techniques to be able to learn new methods every month right from their computer.
I do have a tiered system on my Patreon campaign where people who want to support my work can access a variety of rewards. So, even those who are not interested in practicing the art itself can still get unique rewards based on how much they’d like to contribute. For example, anyone pledging $1 or more immediately gets bloopers from my video recording, and to be perfectly honest some of the blooper reels are longer than the video itself!
On top of the tutorials and bloopers, I am also making at least one Patreon-exclusive post per month for all pledges $5 and up that often provides more hairwork insight but is also a little more informal and personal than what you see on the YouTube channel. I have posted a variety of extra content such as vlogs of my research travels where I discuss the hair artifacts I discover as well as upcoming special projects before they’re publicly announced, doing a let’s play of the video game “A Mortician’s Tale”, and even filming myself making the world’s saddest pie while discussing things like mortality, mourning, and disability.
I am using my Patreon account as a means to keep my education videos ad-free and accessible, but I am also hoping to use it as a way to bring together a community of history and hair lovers.
Some final notes from Courtney and some exciting news for those who would like to try hairwork on their own!
I chose to call my business Never Forgotten for the duality of remembering the individual’s for whom I’m making custom hair memorials and also for ensuring that this sentimental tradition is “Never Forgotten”. Providing education on the history and the actual art techniques is very important to me.
As part of my mission, I am developing as many options as I can for others to learn hairwork. In addition to my in person workshops and online video tutorials, I have recently launched a Hairwork Starter Kit.
The Starter Kit is designed for the beginner who is interested in learning the craft of Victorian style hair flowers. Included in the box are written instructions for the basic gimp technique, hair to practice with, and all of the tools you need to get started. These kits can be purchased on my website and are perhaps the fastest way to get an introduction to hairwork, because once you receive the box, everything you need to start making a wreath is right in front of you.