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Strands of Feeling
Hairwork and Devotion in a Victorian Convent

In 1853, an English magazine described new fashions in the artistic field of hair work. ‘The old style of wearing a friend’s hair in a locket has been common enough from time immemorial’, it noted. ‘But it is a very modern fashion to so braid and form the hair as to make not only an outside ornament of itself, but also to produce the most beautiful and delicate effects’. The ornamental hairwork described here, in which hair was used as the primary material to craft jewellery and three dimensional art works, achieved its peak popularity in the middle and second half of the nineteenth century. Emerging out of a long tradition of hair culture and jewellery, ornamental hairwork was a deeply personal art form that used the most intimate of materials to produce relics of love and devotion.

Details of the Adderton hair sculpture. Photo by Greg Henderson. Sisters of Mercy Brisbane Congregation/Adderton collection.

Hair is the part of the human body that degrades the slowest and is rich in symbolic and sentimental meaning. A synecdoche for a whole person, hair art fossilises a frozen moment in time, acting as a physical and uniquely feminine record of human emotion and bonds. As pieces of art, hairwork was never created to be financially valuable; its sole purpose was to convey emotional meaning. This means that, as objects, hairwork is inseparable from the personal narrative of its creation. Its value exists in the relationships that it represents. What those relationships were, and why the hairwork was created, are not questions that are easy to answer hundreds of years after an object was created and so hairwork are often abstruse objects, untethered to their intended meaning. In the Adderton: house & heart of mercy collection is a piece of hairwork that, while silent and static under a glass dome, glimmers with a hidden story of creativity and devotion. Strange and unnerving to the modern eye, the Adderton hairwork gives unique insight into a little-understood female experience, and stands as a tangible record of familial devotion 100 years after it was created.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, ‘Helen of Troy’, 1863. © Hamburger Kunsthalle.

Queen Victoria photographed by Bassano, 1897. Image via Wikipedia Commons.

In Western cultures, women’s hair holds powerful symbolic value. In the nineteenth century, hair was a key signifier of class and morality. Neat, well cared for hair that was tied up at the age of maturity signified moral purity and dignity, while loose hair falling dishevelled over the shoulders was, according to the advice writer and novelist Charlotte Yonge (1877), ‘grand in fiction but disgusting in real life’. Loose hair equalled loose sexuality, and should instead be ‘reduced … to well ordered obedience. In the Victorian era, as is the case today, hair was linked to identity. Hair was used to construct an outward identity that aligned with cultural and social standards, but it was also a means through which to be judged and categorised against those standards. The history of hair, Royce Mahawatte concludes, is a ‘history of the perception of femininity’ (2008).

Nowhere is the representational meaning of women’s hair more obvious than in nineteenth century literature and art, where hair is used as a shortcut to define women’s moral and religious attitudes.  The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, for example, was obsessed with depicting women’s hair in its natural, free flowing state to convey symbolic meaning, most commonly related to the subject’s sexuality. The poet William Yeats was fascinated with Pre-Raphaelite renderings of hair and incorporated hair symbolism into many of his poems in the 1890s. The Victorian public’s moralistic attitudes towards women’s behaviour were better reflected in the opinion of popular writer and cartoonist George Du Maurier, who condemned the Pre-Raphaelites’ ‘obsessive, deviant and mercenary’ obsession with women’s hair (Ofek 2009).

Gold pendant set with plaited hair, c. 1819. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Yeats includes 23 allusions to hair in his poetry volume Wind Among the Reeds. They include mentions of ‘the long dim hair of Bridget’, ‘passion-dimmed eyes and long heavy hair,’ ‘the shadowy blossom of my hair’, and ‘a flutter of flower-like hair.’ ‘Close your eyes,’ Yeats commands, ‘loosen your hair.’

The ceremonial aspect of hair and the meaning produced by exchanging it with friends and family is also richly represented in literature. As the Englishwoman’s Review explained, it was the ‘imperishable nature’ of human hair which made it popular as a token of love, remembrance and devotion. Although commonly associated with Victorian mourning culture, the exchanging and giving of hair was used to commemorate a wide variety of life stages and events. In an era when travel was circumscribed, hair was commonly given as gifts by people moving away from their home and facing long periods of absence from their friends and family. Exchanging locks of hair and hair jewellery was particularly common amongst women. In the 1908 novel Anne of Green Gables, Anne Shirley exchanges a lock of hair with her best friend Diana Barry, and promises to wear the hair in a cloth bag around her neck when they are parted.

Hair was cherished as a gift in situations like this one because of its powerful cultural significance. Hair was so linked to identity for women that possessing the hair of another person was seen as the best substitute to having that person present. As Helen Sheumaker notes, hair ‘embodied the sincerity of the individual; it demonstrated the emotions shared by the people involved’ (2007). That it why hair cut from an individual’s head at different stages of their life represented different emotions – hair symbolised different stages of a person’s life and relationships. The hair cut from each of Queen Victoria’s children when they were infants, which she carried in heart shaped charms around her wrist, memorialised a different moment in time to the hair locket she received from her mother on her first birthday, or the hair of Prince Albert that she wore in a glass locket ‘day and night’ before her marriage. In hair art, when and from where the hair came from defined its meaning.

Annie Casey, known after her reception as Sister Mary Irenaeus. Photograph on glass, c. 1890. Sisters of Mercy Brisbane Congregation/Adderton collection.

The provenance of the hair used to make the Adderton hair sculpture gives it a unique symbolic meaning. The three-dimensional floral work is made from the hair of Annie and Catherine Casey, biological sisters who both entered the order of the Sisters of Mercy in Brisbane in the late nineteenth century. Annie and Catherine grew up in a strongly religious family of ten children in Milbong, west of Ipswich. Their mother, Bridget Costelloe, emigrated to Queensland from Limerick around 1860. Bridget and her husband William were some of the earliest settlers in the district, establishing a large farm called Stoney Batter.

Catherine Casey was 22 years-old when she entered the Sisters of Mercy in 1887 and Anne was 20 when she followed five years later. Their brother, Charles, was the third member of the family to enter the service of the Church when he was ordained as a priest by Cardinal Patrick Moran in 1898. As was the custom at that time, Annie and Catherine’s long hair was cut off during their reception ceremony – a discreet event that marked their transition from postulants to novice sisters.

The All Hallows’ Convent, c. 1892, as it would have looked to Annie Casey when she was professed. Sister of Mercy Brisbane Congregation collection.

Shaving or cutting postulants’ hair had been a part of the reception tradition since the middle ages, when girls cut their hair on entering a convent to demonstrate their detachment from earthly beauty and embrace of spiritual beauty. While the loss of a woman’s hair in literature often represents the taking away of her power, in the convent context the cutting of hair signals women’s renunciation of the secular and sexual world. The words spoken by postulants at their reception encapsulates the meaning of this gesture. ‘The beauty of the world and all the attractions of the age I have despised for the love of my Lord, Jesus Christ. It is he whom I have seen, whom I have believed, in whom I have my hope.’

In Europe, hair collected during reception ceremonies was often sold to hair suppliers, who used it to make wigs and other devices intended to bolster women’s coiffures. This practice was still common in the 1930s, when one observer noted that, ‘the greatest and most regular sources of supply [of hair] are the many convents in France and other Catholic countries … In some establishments the nuns are encouraged to promote the growth of their hair by the use of oils and massage so that a regular ‘harvest’ is repeated from time to time’ (Passingham 1935). Selling hair was a major source of income for European convents; 400 kilograms of hair discovered in a remote French convent sold for 30 000 francs in the late nineteenth century.

In Queensland, the shaved hair was given back to the novice sisters for their own use. Some Sisters gifted their hair to the parents to keep for posterity, just as today parents save the first locks of their baby’s hair in a special album. In other cases, the hair was burned. Annie Casey is the only known example in Queensland of a sister who fashioned art out of the hair cut at her reception, but primary sources describing this aspect of the ceremony are scarce. It is possible that Annie was following a popular tradition when she transformed her and Catherine’s hair into a floral hairwork.

Details of the Adderton hair sculpture. Photo by Greg Henderson. Sisters of Mercy Brisbane Congregation/Adderton collection.

The three-dimensional sculpture that Annie created is an intricate and complex example of hair art, both in terms of its symbolic meaning and the technique and craftsmanship it represents. Despite the fact that hairwork was promoted as a recreational art form for women to practice at home, working with hair was difficult to master beyond simple shapes and styles. Hair is not an easy material to work with; it is fine and unwieldy and amateur hair-workers required long periods of practice before they could even create a simple braid. There are two types of hairwork – palette worked and table worked. The Casey hair sculpture is an example of the latter, more complex form of hairwork, which is used to create three-dimensional shapes. Along with the hair, which was washed in bicarbonate of soda to strip it of impurities, table worked hair required tools such as wire, spatula knives, liquid gum and India ink to fashion elaborate shapes.

The challenging nature of hairwork meant that many people relied on professional hair workers to transform their hair into pieces of jewellery or art, leading to hairwork becoming more commercialised. This rise of professionalism in hairwork compromised the intimacy and individuality that was essential to hairwork having value. As Helen Sheumaker notes, hairwork was meant to be handmade by the person whose hair was being used. ‘If the manufacture of hairwork was de-personalised or mechanised,’ Sheumaker continues, ‘the meaning of hairwork was affected and it no longer served a purpose.’ The advent of professional hair workers thus led to anxiety about the provenance of the hair used in these pieces. The popular and women’s press encouraged these concerns by publishing possibly apocryphal stories about unscrupulous hair workers who switched the hair that was sent to them from clients for purchased hair that was coarser and more easy to work with. The magazine The Family Friend commented, ‘Why would we confide to others the precious locks or tress we prize risking its being lost and the hair of some other person being substituted for it, when we may ourselves weave it into the ornament we desire?’

Expertise in hairwork was thus a highly prized skill, especially for women. Although men wore hair jewellery and other accessories, hairwork was a highly feminised activity. Even male artists who were commissioned to produce hairwork typically hired women workers to execute the work. Following The Family Friend’s reasoning that hairwork was best created at home, women’s magazines and pamphlets published detailed instructions and tutorials on hair jewellery and art. This may have been how Annie Casey learned the basics of hairwork, although the detailed nature of the Adderton hairwork suggests she was a proficient artist with several years of experience. The skills were also passed down from mother to daughter. Ten year-old Henrietta de Grandi, who won a silver medal for her hairwork floral wreath at the Inter-Colonial Juvenile Industrial Exhibition in 1879, was taught the art form from her mother, a well known artistic hairworker from Germany.

The fact that Annie created the hairwork herself, using her own hair and that of her sister, guaranteed its value as a symbol of family love and endearment. The fact that the hair used was cut during Annie and Catherine’s reception ceremonies added another layer of meaning to the piece. The Caseys were a close family, and after Annie and Catherine entered the Sisters of Mercy they were separated from their parents and siblings. As Sister Mary Irenaeus and Sister Mary Gabriel, Annie and Catherine were also parted. Catherine spent many years as a teacher at the Star of the Sea Convent at Southport and later served at St Patrick’s in Fortitude Valley, Toowong and Maryborough, while Annie spent much of her working life at St Joseph’s Convent and School at Kangaroo Point.

Beaded details of the Adderton hair sculpture. Photo by Greg Henderson. Sisters of Mercy Brisbane Congregation/Adderton collection.

As Sisters of Mercy the Caseys were not isolated from their family – they continued to visit the family home in Milbong in the decades following their reception – but they were also working women with significant responsibilities to their schools and convents. Annie’s hairwork marks the moment in time that she and Catherine chose to devote their lives to this service, and commemorates their relinquishing of the secular, sexual world. But the interweaving threads are also a symbol of their relationship as sisters, marking their shared experience of reception and memorialising their devotion for when they would be parted. As it is likely that Annie gave the hairwork to her parents, the piece also represents her love for her family at the moment when she was separated from them.

The Adderton hairwork belongs to a long tradition of relics of familial love. Hair was the ideal material for symbols of this devotion – it was at once a real, touchable textile, hardy and imperishable, and a piece of a living being, manifesting the love and affection of the person from which it came. Charlotte Bronte, for example, owned an amethyst bracelet braided from the hair of her sisters Emily and Anne, the definitive symbol of sisterly devotion.

Like amber, hairwork fossilises a moment in time. Using the body’s most durable material it creates a piece of art that’s only real value is in the relationships that it represents. Hairwork is a uniquely female document of an emotional life, written in hair rather than in ink. The Adderton hairwork testifies to one woman’s devotion to her sister, her family and her vocation.

The Adderton hair sculpture. Photo by Greg Henderson. Sisters of Mercy Brisbane Congregation/Adderton collection.