by Ellen Micheletti
In the 19th century, death was a fact of life. People usually died at home - not in a hospital and the deathbed scene was a popular one in Victorian novels. People back then wore their grief literally on their sleeves. The etiquette for mourning was strict and inflexible. People were expected to dress in distinctive clothing and absent themselves from society. The end result of mourning customs was to place women in social isolation for a long period of time since the rules of mourning for men were not nearly as rigid as they were for women.
At the beginning of Lisa Kleypas' Where Dreams Begin
, Lady Holland is coming out of three years of mourning for her husband. To our modern eyes, 19th century mourning customs seem incredibly complicated and designed to put women in a social limbo, but in an age where manners mattered, the rules involving the conduct of mourning were strict and strictly followed.
There were degrees of mourning. Full mourning for a husband by a widow was the strictest. For a year and a day she wore a black dress and mantle of bombazine, a mixture of silk and wool. The dress had to be almost completely covered with crape (aka crepe). Crape was a silk fabric that had been treated so that it was totally without luster. There could be no hint of shine in anything worn by the widow. There were no trimmings allowed at all. No shiny buttons, no buckles on her shoes, no jewelry except her wedding ring and mourning jewelry made of jet. The widow had to wear a mourning bonnet with a widow's cap and a crape veil. She wrote all her letters on black bordered paper. After 12 months and one day, she could replace her crape covered dress with a black silk one, trimmed with crape. After about another half year of mourning, the crape could be left off and plain black worn. Two years after her husband's death, the widow could go into half-mourning. The colors allowed were gray, lavender, mauve, violet or black, gray and white stripes. She could wear half-mourning jewelry - pearls and amethysts. Some widows never went into half mourning and wore black for the rest of their lives.
During the first year of mourning, the widow had no social life. She could not go to parties, dinners or the theatre and it was considered bad taste to even be seen in public. Her social life consisted of receiving calls and that was about it. After one year, the widow could resume her social life, but she had to do so very gradually. The power of public opinion was strong and a widow who was thought to not show proper respect to the memory of her dead husband faced being socially ostracized.
Mourning for men was much simpler. They wore a black mourning band on the sleeve of their coats for about 6 months and could take part in social occasions much sooner than could a widow.
Mourning customs were at their most strict during Queen Victoria's own period of mourning. Victoria mourned her husband Albert for the remainder of her life and always wore black with crape trimmings and a widow's bonnet. Mourning customs became more and more elaborate and sometimes were absurdly complicated. For instance, it was thought proper for the second wife of a man to wear black for several weeks as a sign of respect if a member of his first wife's family died. Even little children were put into black, and there are records of young women wearing black wedding dresses if their father or mother died before the wedding. As strict as Victoria was about her own mourning, however, even she did not go so far as to require her daughters to wear black wedding dresses.
The elaborate trappings of mourning began to be less and less strictly observed as the 20th century progressed. Now, while people will wear dark clothes to a funeral, they do not shroud themselves in black for several years nor do they cut themselves off from all social contact for a long period of time. To most people's eyes, the elaborate rites of mourning that were indulged in by Queen Victoria and her subjects seem more like they existed to punish the living than to commemorate the dead.
Ellen notes that The biggest supplier of crape during Victoria's day was a company named Courtland. Courtland's crape was the the fabric of choice and suffered a reversal of fortune when mourning became less strict. The town of Whitby flourished while jet was the only jewelry allowed in deep mourning. Whitby was the source of the best quality of jet and when mourning customs became less strict - the town suffered a depression.
||Ellen is the editor of the Historical Cheat Sheet and an AAR Editor/Reviewer - you can email her via the link here
||Find links to all of Ellen's Historical Cheat Sheet articles at the end of Servants