Victorian Mourning Garb
Today the word
Victorian refers to a certain highly ornate style of architecture, furnishings, and fashion. It is a style that most people of the Gothic persuasion look at with romantic longing. The 19th century cemeteries that cover most of America today are the most visible and recognizable symbol of this bygone era. But the one element of Victorian style that continues to fascinate us is the mourning fashions of the day.
The Victorian age was named for Englands Queen Victoria. She took the throne in 1837 and died on January 22, 1901. Victorias husband, Prince Albert, died of typhoid in 1861. During this period of forty years, the Queen was in mourning. She remained in full mourning for three years and dressed the entire court that way. The Victorian era reflected the Queens prudish ethics as well as, most visibly, her personal taste in mourning.
Victorian mourning fashion was aimed mainly at women, widows in particular. The fashion had a way of isolating a widow in her time of need just as the Queen had done. For the first year, a woman who was in mourning was not allowed to exit her home with out full black attire and a weeping veil. Her activities were initially restricted to church services. But mourning attire was the perfect way to show the wealth and respectability of a woman. Some went so far as to dress their servants for mourning when the head of the household passed away. Middle and lower class women would go to great lengths to appear fashionable in times of mourning. Dying clothing black and then bleaching them out again was quite common. The industry of mourning became so vital to tailors that rumors were spread concerning the bad luck of recycling funeral attire. Hair art also developed in the Victorian era to allow family members to keep mementos of their departed loved ones.
Mourning clothing was an unmistakable and intricate part of life in the 19th century. The act of proper Victorian mourning seems an art today. Certain lengths and stages of mourning as well as colors and fabrics all contributed to this language.
In nineteenth century England, a widow was expected to remain in mourning for over two years. The rules were slightly less rigid for American women.
These stages of mourning were observed by women.
Full mourning, a period of a year and one day, was represented with dull black clothing without ornament. The most recognizable portion of this stage was the weeping veil of black crepe. If a women had no means of income and small children to support, marriage was allowed after this period. There are cases of women returning to black clothing on the day after marrying again.
Second mourning, a period of nine months, allowed for minor ornamentation by implementing fabric trim and mourning jewelry. The main dress was still made from a lusterless cloth. The veil was lifted and worn back over the head. Elderly widows frequently remained in mourning for the rest of their lives.
Half mourning lasted from three to six months and was represented by more elaborate fabrics used as trim. Gradually easing back into color was expected coming out of half mourning. All manor of jewelry could be worn.
The standard mourning time for a widower was two years but it was up to his discretion when to end his single stage. Men could go about their daily lives and continue to work. Typically young unmarried men stayed in mourning for as long as the women in the household did.
Mourning for parents ranked next to that of widows; children mourning for their parents or parents for children being identical. One year was the standard length: six months in crepe, three in second, and three in half mourning. Second mourning, without full mourning, is suitable for parents-in-law. After one month in black, lilac should follow.
Young children were never kept more than one year in mourning. No female under the age of 17 was to wear creped full mourning.
Most of the fabrics associated with Victorian life are no longer in use today, partially due to the invention of modern synthetic fabrics, but also because many Victorian fabrics are too expensive to manufacture today.
A full widows weeds (archaic word for garment) in the mid 19th century required a crepe dress with a plain collar and broad weepers cuffs made of white muslin, a bombazine mantle (cloak), and a crepe bonnet with veil for outdoors. A widows cap was for indoor use.
Crepe, used for the veil and trim, is the fabric most associated with mourning. The fabric is made from silk and similar to crepe de chine; in this instance crepe refers to the crinkled surface of the lightweight fabric. Mourning crepe was made from gummed tightly twisted silk threads. It was a volatile and hazardous fabric. In the rain, it would shrivel and practically disintegrate. Rainproof crepe was introduced at the turn of the 20th century, but it didnt change things much. Constant breathing through the fabric caused many respiratory health problems.
Dresses were made from henrietta and melrose trimmed with crepe. Henrietta cloth was a twilled fabric with a silk warp and worsted weft that has the appearance of a twilled front and smooth back, and the feel of cashmere. Melrose was a linen named for the town in Scotland it came from. Bombazine was used by the less affluent in the beginning of the Victorian era. It was a fabric that mixed silk and wool.
As the crepe wore out it was removed and replaced with fresh material. An economical woman could use an old dress in full mourning; some women dyed a dress black for this purpose.
Caps, cuffs, and collars could all be made from lawn. The name comes from the town Laon in the north of France. The fabric is a linen that was used mainly for garments worn by the clergy. A fine, sheer, plain-weave cotton, made from high quality yarns. For the less affluent, collars and cuffs were also made from muslin, a variety of cotton weaves originally made in the Middle East. (Todays muslin is incredibly coarse by comparison.)
Cuffs of lawn were 9" long, according to the size of the wrist. The fabric was not intended to overlap, but to meet; they were fastened with two buttons and loops placed at the upper and lower edges. These large cuffs were referred to as weepers because one could use them to wipe the nose during crying fits.
Mourning handkerchiefs were made from cambric. It is a plain, soft linen fabric, sometimes also woven in cotton, with a slight lustrous finish on the face of the cloth. Cambric is woven in the north of France in many grades from fine to coarse.
Petticoats were made from silk and stuft. Stockings were of cashmere, silk, or balbriggan. Balbriggan eventually came to refer to the underwear made from the cloth. It was a lightweight, single weft knitted cotton fabric often lightly napped on one side. The fabric is inherently elastic, hence the undergarments, but it ran easily.
Gloves were constructed from kid, leather made from a young goat, also known as kidskin. It is incredibly soft and supple. Towards the later half of the 19th century, wearing fur became fashionable in America. Mourning women were only allowed the blackest animal pelts. This included black sealskin, the darkest sheared beaver, and astrakhan, which was the curly pelt of a newborn Persian lamb.
The color black best represented the Victorian act of mourning because it symbolizes the absence of light and in turn, life. It was an instantly recognizable sign that a loved one had departed this life. It is also said that wearing black for mourning comes from a Roman idea; the mourners could prevent being haunted from the ghost of the deceased by cloaking themselves in black.
Black was not the only color that signaled mourning. In full mourning, white was used for cuffs and collars. By half mourning a woman had a bevy of colors to choose from, by comparison. Grey, mauve, purple, lavender, lilac, and white could all be implemented. Deep reds such as burgundy were also fashionable in the late Victorian era. Subtle prints using any combination of these colors were also allowed. This trend was more popular in the south because of the weather. Dressing in full white, including the weeping veil, was a sign of mourning in the tropics.
Childrens garments were white with black trim in the summer and gray with black trim in the winter. This was mostly for infants and girls between the ages of 15 and 17. Children under the age of 15 were thought not to be able to handle the grief brought on by assuming mourning. A girl was considered a woman at 17 and could be in full mourning if a loved one was to die.
Although mourning jewelry has been produced for nearly two thousand years, it reached its peak in Victorian England at the later half of the 19th Century. The height in American popularity came during the Civil War.
The material most associated with Victorian mourning is Jet. Queen Victoria popularized this black amber after the death of her beloved Prince Albert. Jet is a variety of fossilized coal. The most prized and expensive is from Whitby, England where it has been washing up on shore since prehistoric times. Jet has an appearance similar to black glass which is used as a modern substitute. In first mourning Jet jewelry was the only ornamentation women were allowed.
By second and half mourning jewelry made from gutta-percha, gold, pinchbeck, and human hair were incorporated into the wardrobe. Gutta-percha is natural latex obtained from evergreen trees in East Asia. It was the first plastic material used for costume jewelry. It is a Jet imitator that was quite a bit less expensive. Today gutta-percha can be found, amongst other uses, covering golf balls. Pinchbeck is a false gold used for inexpensive jewelry during the 19th Century.
Hair art became popular in the Victorian age. What started as a simple way to keep a loved one near became an elaborate art practiced by many. Taking a lock of hair and weaving it into knot designs for use in a broach was the most popular form of Victorian mourning jewelry. Rings, bracelets, earrings, watch fobs and necklaces all became quite common in the later portion of the century. Today this art is prized by collectors and family historians alike.
The End of an Era
In 1901, the Edwardian period followed the death of Queen Victoria. In part, the world came out of mourning with her passing. Fashion changed and women were no longer so rigidly dictated to by the strict Victorian code of etiquette.
In America, the change in mourning had been brewing long before Victorias death. The Civil War helped to instigate this change. The war lasted from 1861 to 1865, and approximately 618,000 soldiers died. Twice as many Southern soldiers died than Northern and practically the whole population of the South was in mourning. The depression that all the women in black caused added to an already grieving nation. At one point the governor of Mississippi actually tried to pass a law banning Victorian mourning garb because of the low morale of the people. War changed Americas rigid mourning rules out of neccessity.
As the world was changing at the dawn of the 20th century, so were the societies values. Sexual repression, via an uptight civilization, was no longer the norm. In todays society, death has become a private affair as sex has become the public affair. Sex was an unmentionable in Victorian society yet death held no mystery at all. Wakes of great length were held where flowers were employed to mask the stench. Today many people are afraid even to look into an open casket. Mourning clothing allowed Victorian women to publicly deal with their grief. It forced them to acknowledge the tragedy. Today one can easily ignore death for any period of time. As Freud pointed out society is defined by its repressions.
The Victorian ideal of mourning filtered out of the American conscience as cities grew. Modes of transportation quickened, large scale tragedy brought women into the workplace and gave them better things to do than dress in mourning. Industry had taken over and people lived in a more modern and efficient society. The romantic cordiality, that so appeals to the Goths, was all but gone.
Colliers Cyclopedia 1901 Victorian Mourning Customs
Harpers Bazar April 17, 1886 Mourning and Funeral Usages, Death in the Victorian Family by Pat Jalland.
Daily life in Victorian England by Sally Mitchell
Victorian America. Transformations in everyday life 1876-1915 by Thomas J. Schlereth
Death, Grief, & Mourning
Geoffrey Gorer. 1965 Doubleday
The Victorian Underworld
by Donald Thomas
Petersons Magazine reprints
from 1863 and 1864
Godeys Ladys Book issues from the 1850s.
National Museum of Funeral History in Houston Texas.
Azraels Accomplice clothing company. Batty will make you a reproduction mourning gown.
The educational resource for fabrics, apparel, home fashion and care.
Victorian hair work society on line.
The Museum of Mourning Art is located at Arlington cemetery in Drexel, PA
(Just a half hour from Philly)
Phone # 601-259-5800