Victorians' fascination with death affected many aspects of everyday life, including dress. Fashion magazines advertised mourning versions of the latest styles while women in mourning followed very strict rules as to which types of dress were acceptable. Generally, mourning dress was the realm of women, for the expression of emotion was considered inappropriate in the male-dominated working world. The following items reveal the code of mourning dress, and how it was used to outwardly express one's inner grief at the loss of a loved one.
This striking image contrasts a youthful bride and mature widow, showing how deeply some women expressed their mourning. While etiquette books required widows and close relatives in mourning to wear black for at least a year, many women wore grey or purple to weddings. This illustration reveals how some women wore black for the remainder of their lives, a devoted tribute to their lost loved ones.
While some children wore mourning dress like their adult realtives, etiquette books varied in their opinions as to whether children should dress in mourning at all. Like the dress that her mother would have worn, this girl's frock and hat are trimmed with black crape and her buttons are made of jet.
Victorian fashion illustrations were often more outlandish than anything we might see today. Designers exaggerated their drawings to match the ideal style of the time, so they never looked exactly like the garments that women wore. The gigantic puffed sleeves and extreme headdresses in these illustrations never existed in reality, for everyday dress or for mourning.
While this illustration of a woman in deep, or full mourning follows the same general style as an everyday toilette, its simplicity shows what was acceptable for mourning. A woman who was closely related to the deceased (like a wife or mother) was expected to dress in deep mourning for a full year. During this time, her clothing could only be made of fabrics which lacked color or shine. Only black crape trim was allowed, while feathers, beads, and hat flowers were forbidden. This absence of decoration was meant to show how a mourner was consumed with her deep sorrow instead of her appearance.
After the first year of mourning, a woman had more freedom choosing her clothing. During the following year which was known as "half-mourning," a woman could begin to wear hats again, unlike in deep mourning, when she would have only worn a simple bonnet with a long crape veil. Colors like grey and purple were also allowed. This dress shows more ornamentation than a deep mourning toilette, as it is trimmed with some embroidery and beads made from jet, a lusterless black coal also used in making mourning jewelry.
The woman in this photograph is dressed in mourning for her husband. She is wearing a brooch that holds his photograph, a popular style in Victorian mourning jewelry.
These women are both in mourning for their children, which is shown by the sculpture and photograph in the pictures with them. The woman on the right has white lace trim on her costume, which some parents might have worn to represent the purity of the child.
This man is apparently in mourning for the child in the photograph. But it is interesting to note that his outfit has no special qualities that make it different from any other suit. Victorian men generally wore dark, plain suits every day, which often would have been just as suitable for mourning as they would be for the office.
Victorian fans were often decorated with anything from decorative painting to feathers and mirrors. But, like any other piece of the proper mourning toilette, this fan bears the simplicity and solemnity necessary to mourning fashion.
These black bordered handkerchiefs were an essential accessory to the proper mourning costume. The width of the borders varied, depending on how long one had been in mourning.
Black was the preferred color for mourning jewelry, particularly if it lacked any kind of shine. Jet, a deep black coal, was very popular in the manufacture of all sorts of mourning ornamentation, like jewelry, buttons, and beads. This brooch and earrings are made of imitation jet, an inexpensive and popular alternative to true jet.
Mourning jewelry was often made with designs that held special, symbolic meanings for mourners. The following are a few items bearing some well known mourning motifs:
(Image not available, 7/23/96)Arrow and Dove Pin: The arrow represents emotional pain and the dove represents resurrection into heaven.
Skull Watch Fob: Tiny skulls like this were sometimes given as gifts at funerals.
Ivy Bar Pin: Ivy represents immortality.
Wooden Flower Brooch: Flowers, especially Lilies and Forget-Me-Nots, symbolize remembrance.
Imitation Jet Brooch with Lock of Hair.
Hair Bracelet: Hair is a symbol of life, because it does not decompose after death. Mourners often wore jewelry made from their loved ones' hair as a continual reminder of their lives together.
Imitation Jet Brooch with Lock of Hair: This brooch is decorated with designs of the setting sun, which represents eternity.
Crape is a rough, dull silk gauze that was used to trim mourning clothes. A woman in full mourning generally did not appear in public, but if she did she wore a simple crape-covered bonnet and a long crape veil over her face or streaming down her back.
After the deep mourning period a woman could begin to wear half-mourning, which lasted for up to a year. During this final stage of mourning dress, more jewelry and decoration were allowed, as was a greater variety of fabrics and colors.