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Fashioning Death: Victorian Mourning Dress

How did black become the colour of death and what is the history behind mourning wear?

It is not difficult to come across Queen Victoria wearing her black mourning dress in photographs. In fact, she committed to wearing exclusively mourning dresses since her husband, Prince Albert, passed in 1861. Queen Victoria’s mourning period only ended with her own death in 1901 and her grieving practice soon passed to every family in the country. It was expected of every relative that stayed behind to commemorate the dead by adhering to extremely stringent social and dress codes. This established the black mourning dress as a crucial part of all upper to middle-class Victorian women’s wardrobes, and soon became one of the more memorable silhouettes of Victorian fashion and one of the first examples of how fashion can be used to illustrate emotions.

The widows could only wear lighter coloured attire, such as grey, white, or mauve, after the ‘socially acceptable’ two-year period, which was also referred to as ‘half-mourning’ or ‘slighting the mourning’.

Victorian society is notorious for its adamant and unforgiving etiquettes, norms, and traditions. Death was not an exception. In her article, Stephanie Tomasi elaborates the sartorial etiquette for mourning: “An appropriate dress for the occasion would be widow’s weeds, an ensemble of a black dress, veil, and bonnet which the widow had to wear for two years to be socially acceptable. Widows could wear only fabrics that lacked color and luster.” The requirement of having to wear colourless fabric explains why all mourning dresses and garments were black. This tradition continued into the modern-day, as it is still common practice to wear black or monotonous shades when attending a funeral. Women in mourning could not wear velvet, satin, lace, or fur. The ‘black crepe’ was the only appropriate material. Crepe was heavy, flat, unyielding, and lacklustre, restricting the bodily movements of the wearer. The widows could only wear lighter coloured attire, such as grey, white, or mauve, after the ‘socially acceptable’ two-year period, which was also referred to as ‘half-mourning’ or ‘slighting the mourning’.

Queen Victoria in mourning wear

As it was considered ominous to store as memorabilia the garments linked to a loved one’s death after the mourning period was over, women had to buy new garments every time a relative passed, keeping the mourning fashion trade alive.

As the widows had to obtain the appropriate attire soon after their loved one’s death, there were many shops that met these demands and supplied mourning dresses. A key shop of the time was Jay’s at Regent Street, which provided a vast variety of mourning wear options. As it was considered ominous to store and keep the garments linked to a loved one’s death after the mourning period was over, women had to buy new garments every time a relative passed, keeping the mourning fashion trade alive. The British company Courtlauds was the main supplier of grieving fabrics, monopolising the exports of crepe worldwide and building an empire around this fashion genre. As the widows had to obtain the appropriate attire soon after their loved one’s death, there were many shops that met these demands and supplied mourning dresses. A key shop of the time was Jay’s at Regent Street, which provided a vast variety of mourning wear options. As it was considered ominous to store as memorabilia the garments linked to a loved one’s death after the mourning period was over, women had to buy new garments every time a relative passed, keeping the mourning fashion trade alive. The British company Courtlauds was the main supplier of grieving fabrics, taking over the exports of crepe worldwide and building an empire around this fashion genre.

The five daughters of Prince Albert , 1861

As always, fashion is inextricable from the social context in which it is situated. A close examination of mourning attire reveals to us the unfair treatment of women, which was a standard for Victorian times. In her article written for Psychology Today, Dr. Marilyn A. Mendoza explains that the crepe fabric which the dresses were made of was stiff and scratchy, forcing women to endure skin irritation. Despite its uncomfortable nature, the main issue with the uniform of death was that as worn on top of a crinoline, the dresses were flammable with a lot reportedly catching on fire.

The veils, a common accessory of the specific attire, were created with fabric processed with chemicals that caused difficulty in breathing, blindness, and even death.

Flames and emotional labour was not the only weight that women had to carry during their grieving period. The veils, a common accessory of the specific attire, were created with fabric processed with chemicals that caused difficulty in breathing, blindness, and even death. Men, on the other hand, had it much easier, wearing a suit with black gloves and a dark tie.

Women were often associated with fits of hysteria and emotional instability in that era, and such symptoms were assumed to worsen during the period of mourning. This is most likely why women were required to follow such strict dress codes as compared to men: to contain their emotional excess. It appears as if women had to bear the larger proportion of the grief’s burden, simply because they were women.

Women were allowed to wear jewellery in the second phase of their mourning, sometimes holding a lock of hair from the dearly departed knotted in them.

Of course, there were attempts made by widows and grief-stricken women to make mourning attire fashionable, and this was done in the most creative ways. Mourning wear became an integral part of a Victorian woman’s wardrobe, as widows  were always thinking about ways to remain stylish while having to adhere to strict and drab dress codes. Women were allowed to wear jewellery in the second phase of their mourning, sometimes holding a lock of hair from the dearly departed knotted in them. It is claimed that Queen Victoria started this trend as well, by wearing a locket that contained Prince Albert’s hair. The jewellery motives usually comprised of symbolic illustrations. The most used ones were arrows and dove birds which represented pain and reincarnation and the ivy plant which represented immortality.

It is interesting to observe that even in the bleakest of times, looking well presented remained a social priority. “Weeping” fashion was created with an objective to keep the wearer uncomfortable, probably keeping them in pain and in memory of their loved one for as long as possible, and sometimes leading to the mourner’s own death. Having in mind the strong link between the emotional experience of mourning and its materialistic representation in the shape of itchy fabrics, crinolines, and veils, could this genre be one of the first examples of conceptual fashion?

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