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Grief has shaped our modern culture in more ways than we think. The entire fashion industry as we know it holds roots in mourning dress dating back to the Victorian era.
Two major staples of our modern culture first began in the 1800s as massive cultural mourning dress requirement swept Europe.
In many ways, the Victorian mourning dress requirements –– which had two main stages of mourning that lasted about two and a half years: full mourning and half mourning –– can still be seen today is the black we choose to wear (prior to the Victorian era, most people wore white or purple for mourning) and the hats and veils that often accompany funeral attire (first modeled after nuns who cover their hair and occasionally their faces as a signal of propriety as well as that their beloved is not here on this earth).
Here is the full history of death and grief in the western world shaped the fashion industry forever.
Black wasn’t always the color of mourning in the west. For centuries, white was worn in mourning by most. This is because white was the most affordable fabric color, and one most people already had. Even when black didn become the color of mourning in the west, children still wore white to funerals as a sign of innocence and purity.
Wealthier westerners would often turn to purple in mourning to stand out from the crowd, and because they could afford the dye.
However, black as a color for mourning dates back to the Roman Empire, when the toga pulla, made of dark-colored wool, was worn during mourning.
It was in the Georgian era that black became more recognized as a mourning color not reserved for only the royals. As wealthy commoners rose in the ranks, they looked to mimic the royal family in their fashion – and didn't mind paying all sumptuary fees to do so. Soon, sumptuary laws around funeral and bereavement dress had to be abolished.
Black became customary in the west in all classes thanks to Queen Victoria, who when her husband Prince Albert died in 1861, wore black clothing for the next 40 years of her life.
Queen Victoria in mourning.
Indeed, widows took on the brunt of mourning dress, with rules beginning in the Georgian era on how long they must wear mourning clothing (often at least 3 years).
Cultures throughout the world have a form of mourning attire. For many, white is the customary color. But in Europe and the United States, black has become the dominant mourning color.
A century of first sumptuary law breakdown in the Georgian era and later Queen Victoria’s royal influence on an entire culture also coincided with strict rules for bereavement that were growing in popularity.
Those factors combined so influenced the western world, from the aristocracy to rural communities, that an entire industry was launched out of mourning clothing and customs. This included mourning dresses, mourning jewelry (often made of jet, or a locket of a loved one’s hair), mourning hats and veils, mourning handkerchiefs, and more.
Death was omnipresent in the lives of the people of the Middle Ages. Epidemics, malnutrition and warfare took their toll. In the mid-fourteenth century, the Black Death spread terror that reinforced the images of death in art and folklore. Even in times of peace, death was a regular visitor in families, and especially ruthless when wrenching infants from their parents’ arms.
Indeed, birth and death were closely integrated in the Middle Ages, and often co-existed in a single instant.
Those experiences, however, were kept behind closed doors in the Middle Ages. Even doctors (who were men) wouldn’t enter a birthing room. It was thought to undermine the reputation of a doctor of the time to help a pregnant woman.
Instead, midwives aided pregnant women, who often gave birth behind tapestries and in dark rooms with only a single window. Too much light was said to hurt the mother’s eyes.
Pregnancy, though, for women in the middle ages was dangerous. England was a deeply Catholic nation at the time, and the pain of childbirth was believed to be the result of Eve’s original sin. Few books from the time talk much about it, and all that do are written from a man’s point of view.
“Women often clutched holy relics or recited religious prayers and chants to help them throughout the birthing process. Amulets and amber could also be placed upon the mother's stomach, or prayer rolls could be read or even wrapped around the stomach to help with the pain of labour and to aid safe delivery of a baby. Some mothers even clutched pieces of tin or cheese or butter which had charms engraved upon them,” wrote Claire Ridgway for The Tutor Society.
“The church would have approved of these as they called upon God and that which He had created. Many women called upon St Margaret, the patron saint of pregnant women and childbirth. St Margaret was eaten by a dragon but spat out again due to the crucifix she had been holding. It was hoped that babies would be delivered as easily as St Margaret had come out of the dragon. Although physically these things could not have assisted in the birth, the faith and belief that women had in them would have helped them psychologically and could have helped them deal with their fear and worries over child-birth.”
The Reformation changed all of that. With the growth of protestantism, catholic relics were banned from birthing rooms. Even prayers were deemed superstitious.
“Purgatory was effectively ‘removed’ by Protestants,” says historian Helen Castor, creator of the TV series, Medieval Lives: Birth, Marriage, Death. “The whole architecture of provision for the dead changed, and those changes reached the birthing room too.”
Despite the omnipresence of death in the Middle Ages, people were not immune from grief. Both men and women wept openly after a close loss. William the Conqueror, King of England ( 1066–1087), was described in a chronicle as having been “weeping most profusely for many days” for his wife after her demise, which demonstrated “how keenly he felt [her] loss.”
It does seem to be during the Middle Ages that attitudes toward men showing emotion at loss changed. Reports of when King Louis IX of France heard about the death of his mother claimed he fell to the ground with grief. He was later reproached for demonstrating his sorrow and feelings too strongly in the presence of his subjects. In fact, some towns in Italy even went so far as to outlaw public mourning, citing it as a disruption of civility.
“Stability required male emotional restraint and decorum.”
Women were seen as more emotional and unrestrained, and therefore had more freedom in their mourning rituals and traditions. In some instances, female mourners were often hired for funeral processions.
Indeed, funerals of the time were important markers of status. So much so that laws were created to restrict how much you could spend on food, drink, and even the attendance levels of a funeral based on your family’s status and wealth.
These were part of Sumptuary Laws that governed royal and wealthy society of antiquity. Mourning dress for the wealthy was also regulated by Sumptuary Laws, and there is little written about how the non-wealthy dressed in the Middle Ages during grief.
The fascination we have with Victroian era mourning attire began in the 18th century. The Encyclopedia wraps it up well:
“Efforts to restrict the use of mourning dress to court use had to be abandoned from the late seventeenth century because wealthy European merchant families, determined to copy aristocratic etiquette, defied sumptuary restrictions, paid any fines imposed, and wore versions of court mourning dress as they pleased. Mourning dress for the wealthy became increasingly fashionably styled, with black coats and breeches for men and mantua dresses for women, in black and half-mourning mauve.
The use of mourning dress, also for reasons of social ambition, next spread slowly to the growing middle classes.
Demand across Europe thus expanded and was met through the extensive manufacture of dull black mourning wools, black and white silk mourning crapes, and jewelry. Mourning dress was made up by court and private dressmakers and tailors to suit the specific styles required by these widening consumer groups.”
On March 1, 1738 the Virginia Gazette printed the news of the death of “Her Majesty Wilhelmina Dorothea Carolina Queen Consort of Great Britain.” Instructions were given as to mourning attire, as well as decoration.
Women’s “full dress” was: “Black Bombazeen, broad hemm’d Cambrick Linen, Crape Hoods, Shammy Shoes and Gloves, and Crape Fans.” The article specified their “undress” as: “Dark Norwich Crape, and glaz’d Gloves.” Gentlemen, on the other hand, were instructed to wear “Black Cloth, without Buttons on the Sleeves or Pockets, Cambrick Cravats, and Weepers, broad hemm’d, Shammy Shoes and Gloves, Crape Hatbands, Black Swords, Buckles and Buttons.”The instructions go on, to say that “Coaches and Chairs” should be covered in black cloth, servants should wear “Shoulder-Knots of Black Silk Ribbon…” and that deep mourning should last six months, followed by another six months of second mourning.
“To follow these instructions one had to have enough money to acquire the clothing and accessories needed to follow the fashion,” writes Susannah Philbrick. “While these directives appear in the popular press for all to see, they were clearly advising the Virginia gentry, not the general population. Children observing the mourning for the queen would learn—not only about death—but about social hierarchy, and where he of she fell within the continuum.”
Ultimately, it was Ordre Chronologique des Deuils de la Cour, (1765) where details of Court mourning in France were published, giving precise tailoring instructions. Black and plain mourning attire was required. Bombazine dresses trimmed in black crape, black silk hoods and plain white linen were worn with black shammy leather shoes, glove and crape fans. Jewellery was not permitted.
Second mourning, a less mourning period following full or deep mourning, consisted of black dresses, trimmed with fringed or plain linen, white gloves, black or white shoes, fans and tippets and white necklaces and earrings as necessary. Grey lusterings, tabbies and damasks were acceptable for less formal occasions.
From 1809, woman and child’s mourning attire.
No popular clothing styles were allowed during this period, not even in the black mourning attire. Mourning attire needed to be plain and conservative. By the end of the 18th century, this was about to change dramatically as Mary Stuart Caps began to be worn by some underneath veils, and drop earrings were common.
From 1827, only a decade before the beginning of the Victorian age.
This was leading us into the Victorian Age.
The Victorian Age is often considered the most elaborated for mourning dress. There were strict cultural rules and expectations for how women, in particular, dressed while mourning. This included the lengths of time they were to be mourning (extended from the 18th century).
Published in 1840, The Workwoman’s Guide detailed expected mourning time for loss of other relatives.
Here is another take:
And below, a woman in mourning next to a woman in ordinary dress.
But the rise in mourning dress and attire wasn’t just about Queen Victoria and her famous 40 years of mourning wear. No, it was also about industry, and new possibilities thanks to new technology.
“Advances in textile manufacturing combined with a new consumer appetite for mourning apparel led to the establishment of stores — like Besson & Son in Philadelphia and Jackson’s Mourning Warehouse in Manhattan — that sold ready-made mourning clothes, while department stores like Lord & Taylor added mourning departments,” writes Jocelyn Sears for Racked.
Fashion magazines of the time advertised the latest in mourning wear throughout Europe and the United States. Etiquette books were published instructing people how to dress to properly grieve for different family members.
The prominent fabric of the time for mourning dress was crape.
“Crape was a matte silk gauze that had been crimped with heated rollers; dyed black; and stiffened with gum, starch, or glue,” writes Sears. “Custom forbade fabrics that reflected light during deep mourning, so lusterless crape was the perfect solution. Manufacturers also heavily promoted crape as the ideal mourning fabric, because it could be made from waste silk and was thus cheap to produce, but could be sold at a high markup.”
Crape itself is a heavy, scratchy fabric that does not breathe well, making it incredibly unpleasant to wear regularly –– not to mention every moment of every single day for years.
In addition, though, the crape was used as a veil material. Veils were typically a woman's full height and were secured by the hat. This made crape veils incredibly heavy, difficult to breathe through, and difficult to see through.
From Sears, again:
“By the 1880s, medical journals had begun a discussion about the health effects of heavy crape veils. The New York Medical Journal declared crape respiratory ‘the irritation to the respiratory tract caused by minute particles of poisonous crape,’ while a syndicated column from the North-Western Lancet declared the mourning veil ‘a veritable instrument of torture’ in hot weather, staining the face and filling the lungs with toxic particles.
Doctors speaking of poisonous fabric were not being hyperbolic: Many of the substances used to color and treat crape were seriously toxic, and as the 19th century progressed, the dyes in use only became more dangerous.”
The entire Victorian era widow’s ensemble was known as “Widow’s Weeds.” It included full dress for every possible occasion. Women were expected to mourn for up to 4 years and go through both full mourning and half mourning, at which point lavender and other muted colors could be introduced into the wardrobe.
Abandoning societal pressures on mourning dress at the time would show disrespect to the dead or sexual promiscuity.
Even relatives of the deceased were required to participate. For a sibling, for instance, you’d wear mourning dress for six months.
Catalogs would help sell the newest mourning dress. Here is an example from 1899.
Today, most people will wear black to a funeral, but then go back to their regular clothing. There is a culturally talked about mourning period –– that of the stages of grief –– which was first published in the 1960s. However, those stages have since been proven inaccurate, both by researchers and by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross herself, who before her death said the stages of grief were for the dying, not for the mourning.
What we do know about grief and mourning today is that it is cyclical. It comes in waves for the rest of your life, some more intense, others less so.
Customs dictate burial or cremation, though the methods used for each are changing fast as more eco-friendly options come to market.
Memorials themselves are also changing. You can have your loved one planted in a tree, or harken back to the mourning jewelry of the past with cremation diamonds or memorial diamonds as a way to remember your loved one and carry them with you into the next chapter of life.
Thankfully, mourning dress is no longer so stick. Unfortunately, society still has a lot to do toward helping to bring grief into the light and bring a community element to it where possible. We also have a lot of work to do around men’s emotional health and wellness, especially in handling grief.
There has been a lot of changes in how we mourn and our grief wellness journeys. The next decade will bring about even more, helpful change.
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