Can you imagine having to dress in heavy, black wool outfits for weeks to months after someone close to you died? I mean, you probably feel that way on the inside (Lord knows I did), but actually having to wear it? Yikes. But that’s exactly what was done about 120 years ago!
As you may have learned from Downton Abbey (I’m watching it right now to get in the mood to talk about mourning! Still on the first episode. Forever on the first episode. I won’t fall asleep this time. I promise.) in Victorian England, it was customary to observe mourning by a standardized code of dress. Like everything else in the era, this code was stricter and more of an inconvenience for women than it was men. Men were really only expected to wear a black armband, whereas women had a much more elaborate set of rules.
As seen above, generally mourning dresses were made of a heavy black fabric, with very little details. The main fabric used was crepe (or crape. I can’t find a definitive answer on which spelling to use), which is nothing like crepe streamers we use at birthday parties. That would have been a disaster in the rain. Victorian crepe is a material made of silk, which is then crimped with an iron. Bombazine was also used. According to this book with an obnoxiously long title I refuse to type:
A widow was expected to mourn her husband for two years, but she could moderate her funeral clothing a bit after awhile to “half-mourning,” which consisted of pinstripe black. Parents and children were to be mourned for a year, a brother, sister or grandparent for six months, an uncle or aunt for three months, and a first cousin got six weeks. (In-laws were mourned too, but for lesser periods of time.) Some women remained in their mourning garb for the rest of their lives.
If you like a good chart as much as I do, Wikipedia put together a pretty decent one on their Victorian fashion entry.
According to “Inside the Victorian Home,” ordering a brand-new mourning wardrobe wasn’t really something people did, unless they had a ton of money. The ordinary person would just dye one of their daily dresses and that would be that. More often than not, mourning garments would be passed on to another person after the original owner was out of mourning.
In addition to the clothing worn, mourning was also cause for other changes in a person’s life, right down to stationery. A person in mourning would have their calling cards and other stationery adorned with a black border. Those in mourning were also expected to not attend social functions until out of mourning, and certainly weren’t permitted to throw parties of their own. This rule, however, was lenient for younger mourners, who sometimes would still attend parties and gatherings while in mourning.
One fascinating aspect of Victorian mourning (to me, anyway) is memorial jewelry, particularly jewelry made with the hair of the deceased. Considering the current Western notion that not-on-the-head hair is disgusting, I can’t imagine this being a fad today! I’ll cover memorial jewelry, memorial photography, and a couple final things in the next post.