Death in Victorian England Part 2: Mourning Periods

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.

19th century mourning dress (Museum of Funeral Customs)

19th century mourning dress (Museum of Funeral Customs)

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.

Authentic mourning garb for a widow, a woman, and a small boy.

Authentic mourning garb for a widow, a woman, and a small boy.

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.

Arsenic and Old Crinoline: The Victorian Era’s dangerous fashion

Mr. Tom Weston and Miss Katherine Glendenning of "The Paradise." Katherine is the most likely person on the show to have had an arsenic dress. It would explain a lot. (Daily Mail)

Mr. Tom Weston and Miss Katherine Glendenning of “The Paradise.” Katherine is the most likely person on the show to have had an arsenic dress. It would explain a lot.
(Daily Mail)

So, lately I’ve been obsessed with this show from the BBC called “The Paradise.” It’s set in 1876 and revolves around one of the first department stores in England and the people who work there. The employees live in something like a dorm, have meals together, and all kinds of things I can’t ever imagine Macy’s doing. I’ve always been really interested in Victorian era dresses, and this show’s costumes are perfection.


Binge-watching “The Paradise” got me to thinking about things I could blog about. Like, why were bustles a thing? How did women avoid chub-rub wearing skirts all the time? How gross are the trains on those beautiful, long, drapey dresses? Well, one thing led to another, and I found myself reading page after page about how some dyes, specifically this gorgeous shade of green, were super popular in Victorian clothing, but also contained arsenic, so, you know, it wasn’t all that great to wear.

Quick Facts:

  • This green pigment, also known as Paris Green,  was made by mixing copper and arsenic.
  • It was also used in wallpaper, inks, and for painting.
  • Dressmakers often fell ill from making these dresses, kind of like “Mad Hatters” who got mercury poisoning. Yikes.
Traces of arsenic were found in this dress. (Kathleen McGouran / Ryersonian Staff)

Traces of arsenic were found in this dress. (Kathleen McGouran / Ryersonian Staff)

  • Before Carl Wilhelm Scheele invented his “Scheele’s Green,” a precursor to Paris Green,  the only way to get a green color on a garment or what have you was to layer blue and yellow pigments.
  • It was widely known that this hue caused discomfort and possibly death, but fashion > everything, obviously.

Other things I found interesting:

  • Another popular shade of toxic green was emerald green, which also happened to be the Pantone Color of the Year in 2013. You can compare the shades here. Also, that is my favorite Wikipedia article ever. Double also, Pantone 17-5641 is my exact favorite color. 2013 was a good year for me.
  • First, there’s a shoe museum in Canada and no one ever told me. Second, they currently have an exhibit called “Fashion Victims” about, among other things, arsenic dresses and mercury-ridden hats. Third, I want to go to there.
  • On top of the pigments being toxic, Victorian dresses were also made of flammable materials. Couple the arsenic and combustible crinolines with tight-laced corsets and gas-lighting on stages, actresses and dancers had a good chance of a “swoon and boom” (I just made that term up. You can steal it.)  Basically, you had to be a badass to be fashionable in the Victorian era. In my mind, anyway.
  • I would look lovely in Paris Green.
(Collection of Glennis Murphy, photograph Arnold Matthews)

(Collection of Glennis Murphy, photograph Arnold Matthews)

Additional reading: