The complexities of wearing mourning dress took hold as the
Victorian era progressed following the death of Prince Albert in 1861.
Queen Victoria wore her widow's weeds for the remainder of her long life until
1901, when the Edwardian era began. Many who saw themselves as fashionable,
including those in the lower classes, followed their Queen's example.
The middle classes in particular, wishing to follow and accept the higher
canons of decency of the upper classes, thus they emulated every example she
set. They liked to use black edged stationery, envelopes, notepaper and
Prayer books and bibles had to be bound in Black morocco
leather and handkerchiefs edged in black. The list was endless, but all touches
were intended to convey to the onlooker through a series of signs and symbols
visual messages that the deepest feelings of sadness were felt at the loss. They
tied little black or purple ribbons around dressing table bottles and added
similar purple or black ribbons even to the clothing of infants.
This is picture of a baby in mourning brings home the importance of mourning
to the Victorians and Edwardians. This C19th tintype picture was recently sent by a site visitor. It shows a baby in
mourning wearing black armband ribbons, a sign of the baby having suffered a
close loss. If you have images that might be relevant to this website
perhaps you could send me a good scan and with any known information.
Women in Mourning
Women were the leaders of a household's mourning
drill. It was the woman who as the social representatives of their husbands showed the
world how sorrowing the family was by wearing clothes and following little rules
that reflected this.
While royal attitudes to mourning permeated down throughout
society, often these attitudes were totally impractical for the majority
of the population. This was because royalty not only had the finance to afford conspicuous
consumption of the excessive rules of mourning etiquette, but also little need to
labour unduly hard.
Advice on what mourning clothes to wear, what mourning
etiquette to follow abounded in magazines for women. In 1865 Henry Mayhew
the social historian remarked that '… Women, … had to put aside all their
ordinary clothes and wear nothing but black, in the appropriate materials and
with particular accessories, for the first stages of mourning.'
Mourning was an expensive activity and also wasteful,
because it also had to be fashionable. Identical in fashion styling to the
modes of the day, it used different colours and materials. When more than one
death occurred in a family with little space between them, mourning clothes
would inevitably be worn for several years non stop. As normal clothes were put
away they would often be out of fashion by the time mourning was over so they
were sometimes remodelled and often discarded.
Crape (always spelt with an ‘a' to indicate mourning crape)
was the most used fabric for mourning clothes. It was used in such vast
quantities in the 1890s that Courtaulds built a textile empire on the sales of
the crape cloth alone. Crape was dull looking silk gauze like a crimped and
stiff textured material and mostly dyed the deepest of blacks, although white
crape was used for the widow's cap.
Black was the chief mourning colour in the immediate months
after a death for deepest mourning. Dull surfaced black fabrics such as crape,
plain bombazine, paramatta, merino wool and cashmere were also favoured and used
depending on income.
A widow would mourn for two and a half years, with the
first year and a day in full mourning. During that time pieces of the crape
covered just about all of a garment at deepest mourning, but the crape was
partially removed to reach the period of secondary mourning which lasted nine
months. After that the crape was defunct and a widow could wear fancier lusher
fabrics or fabric trims made from black velvets and silk and have them adorned
with jet trimming, lace, fringe and ribbons.
In the final six months a period called half mourning
began. Ordinary clothes could be worn in acceptable subdued shades of grey,
white or purple, violet, pansy, heliotrope, soft mauves and of course black.
Every change was subtle and gradual, beginning firstly with trims of these
colours being added to the black dresses. These were the transitional mourning
dresses from secondary mourning to the final stage of lesser ordinary half
mourning where colours like purple and cream rosettes, bows, belts and streamers
along with jet stones or buttons were introduced.
Similar rules applied for the wearing of hats or bonnets.
As the mourning progressed, so the hats and bonnets became more trimmed and
fancy, whilst veils became shorter until they were eventually removed
The fashion for heavy mourning was drastically reduced
during the Edwardian era and even more so after the Great War. So many individuals died that just about
everyone was in mourning for someone. By 1918 a whole new attitude had
developed and this was hastened even further by the Second World War.
By the 1950s in the UK women mourned for about 6 to 12
months wearing black and other dark colours like navy or bottle green or subdued
tones. In the 1960s individuals started to wear colours like navy, purple
or grey to funerals. By the 1980s it became usual for some, although not
all people to only wear black at the actual funeral. Evidence of old
habits like drawing the curtains when a person died was also on the wane as more
and more people died in hospitals and the bodies were taken immediately to a
As far as possible active participation in grief in the
late 20th century was removed from the majority of people and thought too
unpleasant to deal with. Undertakers took over as many aspects of possible
of the actual funeral. This may be why so many do not initially understand the
natural grieving time of about 2 or more years that occurs when a truly loved
person dies. But time is a great healer and the Victorians understood this
in a way the modern world has lost grasp of.
By 2000 any dark colour was thought acceptable at a
funeral, with attendance being considered far more important than the clothing.
Evidence of this was shown when H. R. H Prince Charles chose to wear a dark navy
blue suit to the funeral of the Princess of Wales in 1997, because it was the
suit Diana most liked him to wear.
Genealogy is fascinating. You may have old photos that tell
a story as you search for your roots. It is never too late to ask older
family relatives who someone in an old photograph is, or what they can recall of
the person or the events.
This old mourning photo left was sent to me by a site visitor
photo was taken in 1919 in New York City and is a photo of Kathleen's
grandmother. It shows a woman in the throes of grief after the death of one
of her children. Note the mourning jewellery of jet black beads and the careworn
unsmiling indifference to
This old photo is of Johannah McGrath, married to William
Keating. Thousands of miles from the USA a relative in Ireland sent Johannah money to have a mourning picture taken and sent on to Ireland.
Johannah was 50 when her daughter, aged 12, died after a few years of kidney and
Kathleen had gleaned information from her own mother about
this image and the circumstances of her grandmother. She told me Johannah
had worked so hard to keep Eleanor (her daughter) alive. Kathleen was also
aware of death dates of two other children in 1901 and 1902 and even believes
another child died prior to 1901.
This old photo
above highlights the
personal torment showing sadness on the sitter's face so much so, that is almost palpable.
It is thought by many that there is no worse loss than being in the position of
witnessing the burial of your own child, but to have buried several must have
been totally soul destroying. You can feel her pain and loss. I
really hope she came to smile again one day and lived to see here own
The second old photo Kathleen sent me is of Johannah with
her husband and her sister-in-law. It was a tin type photo taken when she
was about 20 years younger.
In this photo Johannah is totally clothed in black mourning
dress. Only her hat has a concession to some subdued paler colours,
probably greys, purple or mauve. Note that her parasol umbrella is also in
deep black which lends credence to the idea of her wearing mourning dress.
It was important that accessories were also in black and were dedicated mourning
The full black balloon sleeves indicate the fashion style
of 1892-1895. But the sleeves are not at the maximum leg o'mutton
puff sizes of 1895, so one might surmise that the sleeve styles could be earlier
or later than 1895 - later with the volume on the wane at 1897.
Since Johannah was a dressmaker it seems likely she would have sewn a fairly
fashionable dress for herself. However as death/mourning dress was
big business she may well have bought the gown ready made. Johannah was
married in 1892, but a sister of hers died in 1892. The sister-in-law who
sits beside her entered a convent in 1893. With some easy detective work
we can surmise that the sleeve style, the convent entry both coupled with the
death of Johannah's sister in 1892 means the date of this old mourning photo is
If you have any pictures of your family wearing mourning
dress I would be interested in seeing them to add to this page or another page.
I am also seeking volunteered wedding photos/paintings of the era 1800-2000.
Fashion-Era.com looks at women's costume and fashion history and analyses the mood of an era. Changes in technology, leisure, work, cultural and moral values. Homelife and politics also
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