Wives and Widows

I have a widow’s peak. When I was very young, my mother explained that it was a sign of beauty. I don’t know what her references were, but I was at the age when I grabbed at compliments like I would handfuls of candy, so I accepted her observation willingly.

And yet – I didn’t know what made the curving horizon of my forehead so attractive. I didn’t understand the aesthetics of the thing. Perhaps my widow’s peak did not make me beautiful after all – maybe it only made me different. And when you’re 10 years old, individuality can be a fearsome, crushing weight. And a subtle, perceptive mother would recognize this and make sure her daughter understood that her widow’s peak was a superior thing, something fine and unique.

But is it really? A cold definition, not interested in making one warm and confident, states that a widow’s peak is a meeting point in the center of the forehead, when hair growth on either side – in the bilateral periorbital fields – is suppressed. The trajectory in each arena is arched and the intersection lower than usual. It isn’t hereditary, it can’t be predicted, it doesn’t skip generations (like porphyria, the madness of King George). It just appears: a dainty, symmetrical deviance.

However, in face of the untenable wording, the altered fields and unexpected harvests, there is still the evocative name. Widow’s peak: fraught with imagery, elegiac, plaintive…where did it come from? The term itself was first used in 1840:  some time before Victoria became a widow, living in Windsor in dark and aggressive mourning.

A 19th century mourning cap when worn by a young widow would be a headdress with dark streamers of silk or crepe, drenched in flowers and lace with delicate pleats of knitted veils. Its silhouette resembled a hood and met at mid-forehead in a subtle point.

mourning_2

The mourning hood was also called a Mary Stuart Cap, referring to a portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots from around 1561, wearing her widow’s weeds.

MaryQueenofScotsMourning

Her husband of less than one year, Francis II, had recently died of such a collection of ailments that physicians in some confusion marked down cause of death as an ‘abscess’. Mary was now free to skip with fey ignorance down an increasingly calamitous matrimonial path.

This type of hood had been in use since the 1530’s and featured a triangular fold of cloth at its highest peak. Its shape was formed with wires and meant to fit tightly. With its subtle curves and bends it was designed to hold a veil and give the wearer’s face a delicate look. She peered with pretty, feminine grief from within a heart-shaped framework of filaments and silk.

Add to these histories the old wives tale, which says that a widow’s peak is an omen of early widowhood, and this is an anthology of irrefutable proof that the coy summit is well named indeed. These stories summarize the sad and gentle reference for my widow’s peak.

But some references are not so sad. On December 11, 1936, before the dust of his brother and Wallis Simpson had even settled, Albert Frederick Arthur George was crowned George VI. Shortly after, a letter appeared in a New York paper, asking:  “In many of the pictures
of the Coronation there is shown at the back of the royal party a statuesque brunette with a widow’s peak. Who is she?”

coronation

She was Lady Ursula d’Abo, and on that day she was part of the coterie of giggling debutantes who were attending on the new King and Queen. Her serene beauty and vivid Snow White coloring made her famous overnight.

ursula

Disney’s “Snow White” came out the following year, and while the model used for the princess was the dancer Marjorie Celeste Belcher, I believe Lady Ursula held quite a striking resemblance as well.

SnowWhite5

Ursula’s autobiography, “The Girl With The Widow’s Peak” reflects on a happy, lush upbringing at Belvoir Castle, a medieval bulk that rose above a green tangle of forest, the center of an estate that embraced more than 15,000 acres. With a kitchen staff of 20, a cook that read tea leaves, a tack room with saddles trimmed in silver, vast Christmas parties for the estate workers, it was a world that performed ‘at full throttle . . . like a cross between a luxury hotel, a museum and a theater.’

She would marry twice. And outlived both husbands.

So the history of the widow’s peak actually has its roots in beauty as well as tragedy. Perhaps my mother was right, after all. Perhaps I should have known.

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8 responses to “Wives and Widows

  1. This is so interesting. I’ve never quite known what a widow’s peak was. I’ve heard the term my whole life, of course, but never was curious enough to explore it.

    There’s a very interesting visual analogy in the Ghanaian akuaba fertility dolls. I suppose I’ve always assumed those lovely curves were abstract representations of eyebrows, but they certainly do bear a resemblance to the lines of a widow’s peak, as well.

  2. During the Edo period in Japan, a widow’s peak was also considered a mark of beauty on a woman: so you’d enjoy compliments on the other side of the Pacific as well, aubrey! Even today, the traditional ornate wig women wear for a Shinto wedding ceremony has a widow’s peak in the front, which one has to have carefully styled by a beautician. (Heaven forfend it should be uncentered or looking less than pointed on the bride’s forehead.) It is interesting that the feature is so highly regarded by many different cultures, particularly in the British Isles where it once was part of a widow’s veil.

  3. Very interesting post–I like these explorations of a phrase or idea. And isn’t it sort of odd that Disney’s Snow White was drawn with a reverse widow’s peak??

  4. Very interesting! I didn’t know any of that 😉

  5. I had never heard of Lady Ursula… What a lovely survivor. She really does resemble Snow White, wow! I’m curious about that autobiography now… Hullo, AMAZON! 🙂

  6. So interesting! And I knew your mom was right all along! 🙂

  7. shoreacres – How interesting and unique! Proving once more that there is nothing new under the sun.

    Hangaku Gozen – so funny that such a demure thing can inspire so many cultures!

    KerryCan – Very much so. In my opinion, Snow White bears more of a similarity than Marjorie Celeste Belcher.

    fatcatfromvox – Aubrey always likes to teach – and Aubrey does not lie! (except when she’s in the mood)

    FeyGirl – Me too – the socially tilted, Upstairs/Downstairs Edwardian world has always fascinated me.

    Lauri – It does seem to be her habit, doesn’t it?

  8. Aubrey, I also have a Widow’s Peak…no one else in my family does! Not an aunt, not a niece. My junior year, a dorm neighbor pointed out hers too and told me it was “a perfect hairline.” This new information has me disconcerted. I don’t want to be widowed young! (Yes, even if my wonderful hairline snared me a new husband with a title and tiaras, I love the Mister too much.)

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