Five fun fashion Valentine’s gifts from history – from eye rings to hair jewellery


Author: Serena Dyer, Associate Professor, Fashion History, De Montfort University

Original article:

Poets, philosophers and scientists have all struggled to define love. But when words fail to express our feelings, lovers throughout history have turned to gifts. Whether given as part of a public romantic gesture, or in the quiet intimacy of a private moment, romantic gifts are a longstanding staple of romantic expression.

In 2024, Valentine’s gift-giving is a commercial goldmine for retailers. Popular choices for a romantic gift might include an evening out, a heart-shaped box of chocolates or a classic bunch of red roses. But research shows that, if you really want to impress your sweetheart, jewellery and fashion accessories are the best options.

It is estimated that USD$6.5 billion (£5bn) will be spent on Valentine’s Day bling in the US alone in 2024, while a further $3bn will be splashed out on clothing, such as lingerie.

This commercialisation of love may seem like a very modern phenomenon of our capitalist age, but jewellery and fashion accessories have been popular tokens of love for centuries.

I’m a fashion historian. Here are five historical ways you could show that yours is a love for the ages with a gift of jewellery or fashion this Valentine’s Day.

1. Sexy underwear, the Georgian way

Today, corsets are associated with titillating lingerie. The corset’s predecessor, stays (fully boned laces bodices), were just a functional part of everyday dress for the Stuarts and Georgians, but they could still have romantic features.

The busk was a long piece of wood, which slipped inside a channel at the front of the stays. It’s practical purpose was the keep the front of the garment straight, but people also found more intimate and romantic uses for them.

a golden busk

A 17th century French busk with the inscription: ‘until I see you again … my love is pure’.
Met Museum

Engraved with love poems, depictions of hearts, and sometimes even verses euphemistically referring to orgasms, these busks were often given as romantic gifts. Positioned between the breasts, the engraved rhymes often expressed jealousy for the busk, which got to intimately rest in the recipient’s cleavage.

One busk from 17th-century France was engraved: “He enjoys sweet sighs, this lover / Who would very much like to take my place.”

Read more:
’I die where I cling’: garters and ’busks’ inscribed with love notes were the sexy lingerie of the past

2. Lovers’ eyes

Georgian lovers did not always conceal their love tokens in their underwear. Eye miniatures, also known as lovers’ eyes, were rings, brooches or pendants decorated with miniature paintings of a romantic partner’s eye. These were gifted between lovers as a wearable symbol of their love.

painting of an eye surrounded by pearls
An eye miniature from the early 19th century.
Victoria and Albert Museum, CC BY-NC

The Bible says that the eyes are the window to the soul, and the lover’s eye was considered an incredibly intimate form of portrait. Yet it was also very secretive and caused tantalising gossip. Much speculation ensued about who was wearing whose eye.

3. Lockets

Ring showing two Tudor portraits.

Elizabeth I’s locket ring, known as the Chequers Ring.
Ann Longmore-Etheridge/flickr

Another popular way of keeping a secret lover close to the heart was the locket.

Early lockets often expressed religious devotion and familial connection, rather than romantic love. Queen Elizabeth I, for example, wore a locket ring containing portraits of herself and her mother, Ann Boleyn (although some historians argue it could be her stepmother, Catherine Parr).

With the rise of mass manufacture in the 19th century, lockets became a cheaply available and widespread love token for the masses.

The new technology of photography also meant that placing a picture of your loved one inside the locket did not require the expensive commissioning of a portrait painter.

4. Hair jewellery

The practice of cutting a lock of your lover’s hair and wearing it in a locket close to your heart was historically widespread, but the Victorians took this trend even further.

hair in a locket

Hair locket from 1795.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC BY-SA

Hair jewellery – ornaments made from strands of human hair – was incredibly popular in 19th century Britain.

While there were also commercial hair jewellery makers, some women crafted rings, bracelets and watch chains out of their lover’s hair at home. Elegant Arts for Ladies, a book containing instructions for crafts that women might try at home, was published in 1856 and even contains instructions for making earrings out of your lover’s hair.

Professional hair-work services came under increasing suspicion in the 19th century. Customers sent in the hair of their lover or family member expecting it to be crafted into a beautiful keepsake. Yet with increasing commercial demands, some manufacturers turned to mass production, and the item returned was sometimes fraudulently made from a stranger’s hair.

5. Posey rings

Perhaps the most timeless of all wearable tokens of love is the posey ring. These simple gold bands, engraved with a romantic inscription, were consistently popular from the Medieval period. Their name comes from the French, poésy (poetry), referring to the words engraved inside.

Gold ring with inscription inside
A 16th century gold posy ring found in Yorkshire.
The Portable Antiquities Scheme, CC BY-SA

The inscriptions in these rings were often taken from published compendiums of sayings, such as The Mysteries of Love or the Arts of Wooing, published in 1658. Sometimes, these inscriptions were touching and romantic, but often they had religious overtones, such as a 17th century example engraved with: “Fear God and love me.”

Romantic bling remains a timeless choice of Valentine’s gift, and the posey ring is still alive and well in the modern wedding band. Although it is doubtful that the wooden busk and hair-work jewellery will come back in fashion any time soon.

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