The British roots of the Olympic Games

In a few days’ time, the world will descend on Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympic Games. It is acknowledged that the modern games have their roots in Ancient Greece, most notably the games at Olympia and Nazi Germany where parts of the opening ceremony such as showcasing the host nation’s history and culture as well as the journey and lighting of the Olympic flame were introduced.

What have been overlooked or forgotten are the British roots of the modern Olympic Games, something that London was keen to emphasise when it hosted the Olympics four years ago. When the Olympic and Paralympic mascots were unveiled to the press by Lord Coe, much was made about their names Wenlock and Mandeville. Both mascots were named after places from where the Olympic and Paralympic movements traced their origins. In particular, Wenlock was named for the town of Much Wenlock in Shropshire where since 1850, the Wenlock Olympian Society have been organising the Wenlock Olympian Games. In 1890, the games were attended by a French educator and aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin and what he saw that day in Much Wenlock would play a part in his idea for reviving the Olympic Games.

However there is more to the British roots of the modern Olympic Games than the Wenlock Olympian Games. The whole ethos and ideals of the Olympics – the concept of amateurism, the emphasis on taking part rather than winning, the role of sport in character building and the notion of fair play all has its roots in the nineteenth century British education system. While amateurism in its purest form has largely disappeared from the Olympics, the others have remained the bedrock of the games despite all the controversies that recur every four years that the games are held.


Character and Manliness in Victorian Britain

When well-known sports people such as Jessica Ennis-Hill, Nicola Adams, Andy Murray and Chris Hoy are interviewed they frequently cite the benefits of sport, not only in the physical sense but also in the psychological – sport can instill a sense of team work, sense of accomplishment, discipline and develop character. None of these ideas are new in fact, they have been around for more than a hundred years and the roots of these ideas can be traced in the Victorian education system anchored by middle class values and respectability.

The 19th century Victorian education system was male dominated and geared towards not only providing boys with academic knowledge but crucially and more importantly it was aimed towards developing and moulding their characters.  The notion of “character” was pervasive in nineteenth-century British political, social and educational discourse. As Stefan Collini detected, aspects of Victorian political discussions on character can be seen as a way of imposing middle class values on both upper the working classes as well as the impact of diverse influences ranging from religion to literature and even science!

A recurring theme in discussions about character is the concept of manliness which was used by religious personalities, social commentators and educators in what John Tosh described “an extraordinary variety of contexts”.  In addition, the concept of manliness was an important aspect of Victorian thoughts on gender that included the rigid designation of the sexes and the ideal qualities associated with both. Manliness was usually synonymous or used interchangeably with “character” and “self-reliance” where it was seen as a way to describe so-called masculine virtues and refer to the way that those virtues governed a man’s relationship with his fellow men and with women as well. The language of warfare was frequently used as metaphor and “success was viewed as a personal achievement, and adversity could only be overcome by calling on personal reserves of character.”

Instilling manliness in middle and upper class males was taken seriously and the transition from boy to man was accomplished by several rituals. First was by the age of six, he was recognised as a male child and began wearing breeches or trousers. The trousers enabled the boy to engage more in outdoor play and sports with other boys. This was also the time where a boy’s home education with a governess or tutor came at an end. By the age of eight, he would also be sent away to public school in the belief that schooling prepared boys for the wider world – not just for a future occupation but also the discipline that would hopefully stand him in good stead throughout his life.

Also being sent away to school meant reinforcing the gender divide between masculine and feminine roles. As it was observed, “manliness was as much to do with separating from the feminine as with affirming the masculine” and this resulted in a further social gap between men and women as well as reinforcing the bias among men that the company of women was generally not stimulating due to their supposed inferior intellect.  Public schools were basically all-male environments in which camaraderie, obedience and excellence were instilled in the pupils. As there were virtually no women in schools manliness could be instilled by discouraging any reference to female members of the family as well as family pictures and room décor that might be perceived as “feminine”.


Another aspect of manliness apart from the physical was the revival of the medieval idea of chivalry. Along with the Gothic revival in art, architecture and literature (Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe being a classic example), there was also the interest in how the ideals of chivalry could be adapted and translated to a nineteenth-century audience. It was asserted that the revival of interest in such an idea “helped to make the old chivalry a valuable imaginative resource in the midst of the social and economic dislocations of the industrial revolution- ” –  the earnest middle classes appreciated chivalry as a “timeless and classless moral ideal,” although many of the manifestations of chivalry during this period were mostly concerned with producing replicas such as Queen Victoria’s medieval themed ball and homes in the style of medieval castles for the aristocracy. Others were bordering on the ludicrous such as the Egremont Tournament of 1839.

The Evangelicals added a Christian and moral dimension to manliness and chivalry: for them, what was important was the presence of the “inner moral resources of a man which should determine his dealings with the world.” Manliness in the evangelical sense meant channeling one’s energy into work that led to true freedom from dependence. Work was also meant as a means for self-discipline, and thinkers like Thomas Carlyle extolled the virtues of work as another way to avoid falling into the trap of idleness. For evangelicals, manliness and the work ethic went hand in hand.  In addition it also referred to the home: the evangelicals sought to disassociate manliness from sexual licence and instead focus on the man as a paterfamilias figure with the ability not just to provide materially for his family and household but to strengthen the bond between his wife and children.  Emphasis was also placed on purity – the ardent love of a man for his wife steering him away from sexual temptation. The regime of cold baths and ceaseless physical activity was designed to keep impure thoughts at bay and the evangelical notions of a strong work ethic, fidelity and a close knit family were instruments in the constant battles against temptations of the flesh.

In the case of chivalry, its ideals appealed strongly to the evangelicals as well. There was the appeal of qualities like nobility and virtue that were juxtaposed with so-called Victorian values such as steadfastness and duty. To be a man meant discipline, self-sacrifice and stoicism, the evangelicals anchored the belief that a true Christian man accepts and “acknowledges Christ as [his] captain and master.”  Aspects of Christian manliness and chivalry could also be found in the literature of the day. Novels such as Westward Ho! and Tom Brown’s Schooldays promoted the ideal of a true Christian man who “should dedicate his body, mind and will to the service of God.” Consecrating masculinity for the greater glory of God in all endeavours was another major theme of Christian manliness.



Another Victorian ideal that was connected to character and manliness was self-help and one of its most prolific and famous exponents was the author Samuel Smiles whose various publications most notably Self Help (1859) was  a bestseller during its time and translated into various languages, remaining in print to this day in Taiwan, South Korea and Japan.  Kenneth Fielden, in his article on Samuel Smiles noted that self-help as a doctrine was vague – the way it was presented was not coherent enough, “it did not appear in the form of abstract, logical argument, but through biographical tales, by parables, stories, aphorisms, proverbs.”  Smiles’ books profiled personalities according to categories such as military heroism, achievers in the arts and culture and what is termed as “new heroism” found in scientists, engineers and inventors. Smiles believed that the formula for success rested on traits such as hard work, diligence, self-control, sobriety and cultivation of potential. He disagreed with the idea that innate genius determined success; quoting the painter Joshua Reynolds that hard work was also a road to success sometimes even more than natural talent.

samuel smiles

What then, is the connection between character, manliness and self-help? Mandler writes that during the nineteenth century, there was the assumption that many British men had all three in spades. Certainly, the achievers that Smiles profiled were seen as the epitome of improvement via self-help where they overcame their handicaps by dint of hard work, integrity and perseverance.  Max Jones in The Last Great Quest mentions that heroic exploits exemplified the notion of character and manliness. Like Fielden, Jones also mentioned Smiles’ contribution to nineteenth-century notions of character. The emphasis on manliness was in line with the dominant Victorian discourse on gender and the rigid separation of male and female roles. It is therefore not surprising that in Smiles’ pantheon of self-help icons, only two were women.

Jones goes further: “The Victorian idea of character was rooted in four core qualities: self-restraint, perseverance, strenuous effort, courage in the face of adversity.” In Smiles’ view all four were present in the work place. For him, the work place was a “stage for moral endeavour” and the root of progress and civilisation. This represented a shift from the previous century’s preoccupation with leisure and gentlemanly politeness as well as the growing influence of middle class values such as thrift and industry against that of aristocratic indolence.  Tosh agrees, stating that manliness was also a benchmark to “distinguish the broad citizens from the privileged and idle. What ‘the people’ had in common was what made them socially useful – the dignity of labour. In popular culture this was the foundation of true manliness, and it distinguished the people from the aristocracy.”

Ironically the reality is that once some had become wealthy through hard work their aspiration shifted towards their children acquiring the traits of and becoming gentlemen. In this sense they begin to absorb the upper and middle class disdain for manual labour. Manliness then would have to be taught and instilled through another means, most notably through schools and sports.


The role of sport in instilling manliness

Perhaps the most famous way by which manliness was instilled in schools was through sports and organised games. They were heavily promoted as one way to develop and instill character as well as to channel the hormonal urges of young men in to a hopefully more positive direction.  Headmasters and clergymen were concerned with youth possibly falling into sin and impure thoughts: while many social commentators frequently harped on the “physical and moral vigour of the race.”  As a result, young men were constantly pushed into a ceaseless round of physical activity – running, cricket, rowing, archery, hiking, climbing and cycling together with cold showers (even in the dead of winter). It was believed that the constant stream of activities as well as the Spartan lifestyle that was demanded would prevent young men from getting into trouble, as the school authorities took seriously the Benedictine maxim that an idle mind was the devil’s workshop.

eton race

An assertion of manliness through sport was also tied to prowess in battle. The Duke of Wellington was alleged to have said that the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton and his own exploits on the hunting field were equal to his reputation as a general. It was thought that partly due to the Duke, the “connections between sporting and military manliness [was] already well-established.”  Jeremy Paxman mentions the “Breed”, an adjective to describe the embodiment of the ideal man which he describes as “fearless…..bold, unreflective and pragmatic….men you could trust.” The Breed was also poised for action and was seen as reliable in times of crises. In reality, this was not always the case but the all-male public schools did turn out some men who attempted to live up the ideals of the Breed.

Alongside cricket, another sport popular in schools and universities was rowing. Part of this appeal was the reminder of the Athenian navy which like its army was comprised of citizens.  With the emphasis on sports and organised games as means to develop character, there was also the acknowledgement of its importance to the development of the citizens’ physical and moral vigour as well as the occasional self-congratulation that to be born British meant being the most fortunate person on earth. Apart from the self-congratulatory pronouncements on the strength of the British national character, this was set against other nationalities (especially against the French during the nineteenth century) that often appeared as cautionary tales/moral of the story and served as warnings to the general public.

Cambridge-univ-cricket_1899   oxford_university_1877_photo

Apart from Christian influence, the concept of manliness was also influenced by ancient Greece. With emphasis on sports and its curriculum dominated by the classics, the public schools were bound to be attracted to ancient Greece as a role model. The admiration for ancient Greece was also apparent in both Oxford and Cambridge and by extension this admiration also filtered through a popular literary genre from the nineteenth century; the school story which always had for its heroes those who “combined dazzling feats of athletic prowess with brilliant scholarship.” Headmasters and university dons emphasized to their students the ideal balance of arête gumnastike (athletic excellence) and arête mousike (literary excellence) and as we shall see later these ideals especially the former would make their way to the revival of the Olympic Games.


Baron de Coubertin and the revival of the Olympic Games

There was also a strong sense of individualism and competitiveness in the idea of manliness as the industrial revolution gradually broke down the predominance of the landed aristocracy and led the way for others to succeed by virtue of hard work. As a result, there was the encouragement to “always to excel over others” and the competitive ethos spilled over to all aspects of life most notably in sports as played in schools and universities. Foreign visitors to Britain were always struck by the ultra-competitiveness mind-set that prevailed in school and universities as well as the British passion for sports. One visitor to Britain, the French educator Baron Pierre de Coubertin was so impressed by what he saw as the dedication to sports that he thought of applying British methods to French schools as a template for France’s recovery in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War.


Coubertin was heavily influenced by the writings of contemporary educators such as Jules Simon and Thomas Arnold, the latter introduced to him via reading Notes on England by Hippolyte Taine, a historian and philosopher. From Taine’s work, Coubertin was “intrigued by the concept of the British gentleman and by stories about the Englishman’s attitude to sport. Britain seemed to be an enviably successful imperial society.” (p. 68)

He undertook trips to the US, Germany and the UK to study their education systems and how they might be adapted to France. Coubertin was impressed with the British public school and university system especially what he saw as the balance between intellectual and sporting pursuits which was in contrast to the French system which he felt was too much tilted in favour of the intellect over the body. If France was to recover from the humiliation of defeat in 1870 and the loss of Alsace-Lorraine then reform and a re-think in attitudes would be needed.

Coubertin strongly believed that the British education system would provide the template and suggested an injection of sports and healthy physical content into the existing French curriculum to balance out the intellectual content. Playing fields and playgrounds together with changing facilities should be introduced together with a variety of sports for French schoolchildren. He asserted that sports and games could help suppress vice and impure thoughts among the young by diverting their energy into physical activities. To critics who accused him of promoting sport as a form of militarism and military training, Coubertin argued that that on the contrary, channeling the energy into sport was a form of freedom. Sport for him provided moral lessons in fair play, sportsmanship and character building. Crucially he believed that sport had the capacity to bring people together united in the common pursuit of excellence and passion for sport.

Gradually Coubertin began to further take his ideas about bringing people together through sport by talking about the idea of reviving the Olympic Games which were last held in 393 AD when the Emperor Theodosius put a stop to them for what he saw as their pagan characteristics. The “Olympian Games” he saw at Much Wenlock convinced him that it was possible and in a meeting in Paris in 1894, he spelled out his main motivation for such an undertaking:

It is clear that the telegraph, railways, the telephone, the passionate research in science, congresses and exhibitions have done more for peace than any treaty or diplomatic convention. Well, I hope that athletics will do even more…Let us export our oarsmen, our runners, our fencers into other lands. That is the true Free Trade of the future; and the day it is introduced into Europe the cause of Peace will have received a new and strong ally.

This is enough to encourage your servant to dream now about the second part of this programme; he hopes that you will help him as you helped him hitherto, and that with you he will be able to continue and complete, on a basis suited to the conditions of modern life, this grandiose and salutary task, the restoration of the Olympic Games.

This set the motion for the eventual staging of the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896. Since then every four years, they have been held in a different city and while the Games have more often than not fallen short of the ideals set by their founder, the notion of sport as character building, instilling discipline and fostering the values of sportsmanship and fair play with its roots in 19th century Britain still lives on.



Further reading:

Peter Mandler. The English National Character: The History of an Idea from Edmund Burke to Tony Blair (Yale, 2006)

Stefan Collini. ‘The Idea of “Character” in Victorian Political Thought’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society (1984), pp. 29-50

John Tosh. ‘Gentleman Politeness and Manly Simplicity in Victorian England’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 12 (2002), pp. 455- 472

John Tosh. A Man’s Place: Masculinity and the Middle-class home in Victorian England (Yale, 2007)

Mark Girouard. The Return to Camelot (Yale, 1981)

Jeremy Paxman. The English: A Portrait of a People (London, 1999)

Norman Vance. The Sinews of the Spirit: The ideal of Christian manliness in Victorian Literature and religious thought (Cambridge, 1985)

Kenneth Fielden. ‘Samuel Smiles and Self-Help’, Victorian Studies 12 (1968), pp. 155-176.

Max Jones. The Last Great Quest: Captain Scott’s Antarctic Sacrifice (Oxford, 2003)

Michael Llewellyn Smith. Olympics in Athens 1896 (London, 2004)

David Wallechinsky and Jamie Loucky. The Complete Book of the Olympics 2012 edition (London, 2012)

Christopher R Hill. Olympic Politics (London, 1996)

John J Macaloon. This Great Symbol: Pierre de Coubertin and the Origins of the Modern Olympic Games (London, 2007)




Women in Black: Mourning Fashion and Etiquette, 1870-1939

On 30 June and 1 July, the Queen and members of the royal family took part in events to observe the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. It was telling that the Queen and Duchess of Cambridge were both in grey and white while the Duchesses of Cornwall and Gloucester were in navy blue. The clothes worn by the royal women were respectful but not sombre, the colours being a dignified choice for the solemnity of the occasion. The choice of colours was redolent of half-mourning, a custom that disappeared with the end of the First World War: with only women of a certain generation and the Royal Family observing a variation of this mourning etiquette.

When we think of women in mourning, the first person that comes to mind is Queen Victoria after 1861 when on the death of her husband Prince Albert; she went into prolonged mourning and wore black in his memory until her own death in 1901. By the time of the Prince’s death in 1861, the standards and etiquette of mourning which originated from the observation of court mourning in previous centuries had already been established, but Queen Victoria’s own mourning for her husband was echoed by the widespread observation of mourning etiquette by almost all classes high and low.


Fashion, clothing and etiquette

As Jessica Regan observed in her 2014 lecture, Women in Black: Fashioning Mourning in the 19th century, mourning rituals reached its peak in the 19th century as fashion became aligned with mourning and the resulting elaborate mourning codes became widespread in society. A number of factors contributed to this; first, high mortality rates were still prevalent during this period, the expansion of the middle class and finally the development of the retail sector and advances in technology meant that the use and production of black fabric became much more widespread than in the past.

The use of black is one of the most highly visible of the ritual of mourning with regards to clothing. In the past, black was not the exclusive colour for mourning; other colours such as brown, grey and dark blue and even white were also used while black was mostly used by religious orders to depict sobriety and their renunciation of the world. However by the 19th century, black became the norm for mourning, the colour speaking of the “desolation within” as well as a sign of the deprivation of a life. Additionally, black as the opposite of light represented the analogy of death as darkness extinguishing the light of life.

As photographs, illustrations and accounts of the period show, mourning was also a social ritual. It was seen as a sign of respect, suffering a loss that should be honoured and those feelings being matched by the sobriety of the garment being worn. It was also seen as a burden as several surviving letters and diary entries of the period showed, many women found having to don mourning as an inconvenience especially as for a set amount of time they could not wear any coloured clothes or take part in society.

Mourning rituals were precisely and minutely calibrated and defined: and breaches or perceived breaches of the code were looked at very much askance. For the first few weeks after a bereavement the family remained secluded, while letters telling of the death were written by a family member on black-edged paper and sent in a black-edged envelope, the thickness of the borders being indicative of the social position of the deceased, his or her relationship to the letter writer and the time that had elapsed since the death. Thick black borders indicated a recent death, narrow ones a sign that time had passed and the family was ready to resume their ordinary way of life.

However mourning was also a useful mean of articulating that sense of loss and for some it became a central part of their image. This is especially the case with Queen Victoria through the dissemination of the image of the “widow of Windsor” in photographs, paintings, drawings and engravings. Mourning became that key aspect of her identity and the clothes worn were both seen as a manifestation of middle class respectability.

It was women who bore the brunt of mourning especially if they were widowed. Widowers, because of work and duties outside the house were expected to go back into society quickly, with their only sign of bereavement being a black tie, black arm- or hatband, but it was very different for women. As Lou Taylor in her book Mourning Dress: A Costume and Social History wrote:

Women were bound by the labyrinth of mourning dress etiquette for a much longer period than their menfolk. They were burdened with the duty of wearing depressing, and often in their eyes, ugly clothes for many years of their lives, whereas the men, once the funeral was over, needed only to wear an armband. The difference is symbolic of the whole social position of women in the second half of the nineteenth century. Women were used, albeit willingly and even eagerly by most, as a show piece, to display their family’s total respectability, sense of conformity and wealth. Amongst the ‘respectable’ classes, the whole way of life of women was built on these foundations and with these goals in mind. Mourning dress was perhaps still the most perfect vehicle for this purpose as it had been in the past.” (pp. 135-6).

Women in mourning in fact were as much the outward manifestation of a family’s status and conformity to social norms and demands as a carriage and horses, servants and household decoration. It was harder for female courtiers, those who attended to members of the royal family as ladies-in-waiting because not only did they have to observe mourning for a family member who died but also to observe court mourning. After Prince Albert’s death, Queen Victoria decreed that everyone in the household had to appear in full mourning while on duty for two years and although official mourning for the Prince ended in 1863, women at court still had their wardrobes dictated by the Queen. Many of the ladies in waiting were older women or widows who had experienced multiple bereavements and were well versed to cope with the Queen’s demands however it was harder for the maids of honour – young, unmarried women not yet accustomed to the rigid customs of mourning. As a concession, she permitted them to wear half mourning colours such as white, grey, purple, mauve except during official court mourning for a member of the royal family whether here or abroad, when they had to wear all back with jet jewellery.

Mourning rituals, etiquette and dress became more elaborate by the middle of the 19th century. The period of mourning lengthened and even the most distant relatives were also mourned and magazines and journals were on hand to offer advice as the more elaborate the etiquette had become the more likely a faux pas would be committed. Mourning warehouses and factories that specialised in mourning fabrics also flourished. Courtaulds for instance published a leaflet entitled Notes on Fashionable Mourning which was a summary of advice given by leading women’s magazines of the period such as Queen, Gentlewoman, The Lady, Lady’s Pictorial and Ladies Year Book. The magazines could not agree on the precise length of mourning but the overall agreement was that at least there should be a respectable length and in the end it was up to the individual depending on their circumstances and personal taste as well as to navigate the balance between fashion and respect.

A general consensus however emerged and this was with regards to the stages of mourning that the family especially the women observed. Mourning was a universally understood signal with accepted gradations (‘first mourning’ ‘second mourning’ ‘ordinary mourning’ ‘half mourning’) that meant outsiders could observe the bereaved and see from the depths of the mourning being worn how recent the bereavement was, the relation of the deceased to the mourners and that they needed to be treated with gentleness and consideration. During the first stage of mourning which lasted for a year and a day (‘deepest’ or ‘first mourning’), a woman must wear a paramatta or bombazine dress and mantle with crape applied to the skirt. Cuffs and collars were made out of lawn and the rest of the dress (the bodice) was made out of crape. The bonnet should be made entirely out of crape; inside should be a widow’s cap with a crape veil. By the second stage which lasted nine months, duller black silk fabrics were permitted and widows were allowed to divest their dress of some of their crape, although not all, in order not to appear to have recovered too quickly. Crape could be restricted to trimming into dresses, capes and bonnets; then after six months widows could lessen the crape still further and the cloth could be recycled through other means particularly as trimmings for hats or dresses.

mrs-howes-in-deep-mourning victoria_frederick_mourning

During the third stage which lasted for three months, crape was finally abandoned and silk or satin trimmed with ribbons, lace, jet and embroidery were permitted. Finally after two years of mourning, half mourning was permitted and could last from 6 months to a lifetime. They consisted of the latest fashions but in colours such as white, grey, soft mauves, violets, pansies, purple and lilacs.

Mourning also extended into underwear and accessories such as parasols, shawls, gloves and handbags. Underwear and handkerchiefs were trimmed with black ribbon or black border. Hats were also in black with a veil and a widow’s cap underneath trimmed with black crape. By the 1890s the custom of wearing a veil over the face for the full year of deepest mourning was dying out. “Mary Stuart” widows caps as helped popularised by the Empress Victoria of Germany also became ubiquitous in the 1890s.

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The strict prescription and the style of dress also reinforced the widow’s social ostracism, she could not go out into society for a year and it was considered poor form to accept invitations or appear in public, and calls were paid only by relations and very close friends. It was only in the second year could the widow resume any semblance of social life and even then, the widow could be seen both as an object of pity and a threat – the former because of the sense of loss and loneliness as a result and the latter because she was legally free to remarry or not as well as seen as much more sexually experienced. Hence the “woman in black” was seen both as a tragic figure and a temptress.

A widow emerging from her first mourning also had to reassess her position in the world – she might well have lost both her income and her social status with her husband, and women who remarried were regarded with faint distaste as being unfaithful to the memory of their husbands, which was  regarded as almost as bad as physical infidelity and was not immune from severe censure. The fiance of Lord Tennyson’s sister Emily died before they could be married and eight years later she became engaged again, to the considerable shock of her first fiance’s cousin.

Only conceive, Emily Tennyson is actually going to be married…can you conceive of anyone who he (Arthur Hallam, the dead fiance) had loved, putting up with another? I feel so distressed about this, really it quite hurts me. I had such a romantic admiration for her, looked at her with such pity, and now my feeling about her is bouleverséd.


Etiquette for the rest of the family was less strict. For children and parents, a year was all that was required. Crape was required for the first six months then gradually plain black could be worn and finally half mourning. The family was obliged to retire from society for two months. Mourning for grandparents lasted six to nine months; two months in silk with crape, two in black without crape and two in half mourning.

Siblings were mourned for six months (three in crape, two in black & one in half mourning); uncles and aunts for six weeks to two months. For great uncles and aunts six weeks (three in black, three in half mourning) sufficed while the mourning period for first and second cousins were four and three weeks respectively. Crape was not necessary for relatives and relations by marriage were mourned in the same degree as blood relations. John Morley observed that the mourning etiquette and the degrees by which family members are mourned “points a curious feature of the highly formalised mourning of Victorian society – it founded its rules firmly on the institution of the family, that sacred focus of Victorian life.” Mourning codes – what to wear and for how long – were prescribed for each and every family and social relationship, even distant relatives and ‘connections,’ such as mourning by parents for the parents of a child’s spouse or the second wife for the parents of a first wife.

The widespread observation of mourning and its formalised etiquette was aided and abetted by advances in technology such as the production of textiles, dyeing techniques and the discovery and introduction of aniline dyes in the 1850s that made shades such as mauve, lilac and violet prevalent and popular. The fabric most associated with mourning was crape, a mix of matt silk and cotton whose crimped appearance resembled crepe paper. Other fabrics used for mourning attire included bombazine, a mix of silk and cotton is a type of fabric made in Norwich, while paramatta, which was a cotton wool blend, was a cheaper alternative to crape and bombazine.

Because crape was the fabric prescribed especially for the first stage of mourning, there was huge demand for the fabric and Courtaulds a textile firm specialising in silk ended up monopolising production. Apart from pure crape, Courtaulds began to introduce cheaper alternatives such as “Albert” crape, a mix of cotton and crape which was first produced in the 1870s and seen as an inferior and coarser fabric than pure crape.

Because of the etiquette surrounding mourning, apart from the reams of advice in magazines and the fashions adapted to mourning featured’ it became an industry. There was the growth of “mourning warehouses”, the most famous being Jay’s Mourning Warehouse at 247-249 Regent Street. It was the biggest in London and catered to a diverse clientele – high and low, rich and poor and even held a royal warrant as providers to Her Majesty the Queen and the royal household. Other warehouses included Pugh’s Mourning Warehouse, Peter Robinson’s “Court and General Mourning Warehouse”, Nicholson’s “Argyle General Mourning and Mantle Warehouse” – all in Regent Street. Mourning Warehouses provided convenience and shopping for mourning wear, accessories and other assorted paraphernalia under one roof. They could also provide home delivery services when required and the warehouses were staffed by assistants knowledgeable in the rituals surrounding mourning. For those who lived outside huge cities, warehouses also published catalogues allowing a wider reach than simply confining their business in places such as London or Manchester.

Jay's  Peter Robinson

Mourning warehouses also specialised in clothing that while conforming to mourning etiquette also displayed the latest fashions. For instance Jay’s would present clothes in the latest styles with elaborate descriptions and illustrations. As contemporary illustrations and descriptions would show, a death need not interrupt following the latest style and fashion as well as develop the ability to strike a balance between fashion and respect.

For the women who could afford it the permutations were endless. Those lower down the scale had to attempt to obey the rules laid down by the more prosperous – either a mourning dress was bought or made or if that was not possible, dyeing a dress already in wear was a less expensive solution. Most of the working class could only make a token gesture towards mourning.


Mourning jewellery

Observation of mourning etiquette also extended to jewellery. Coloured stones and jewels were frowned upon during the mourning period and just as the colour of the clothes denoted at what stage the person was during the mourning period, the jewellery worn also provided the same function.

During the first two years of mourning, jet – a type of hard coal, lignite and probably formed from driftwood was the only acceptable material for jewellery to be worn especially during the period of deepest mourning. The hardest and best quality natural jet came from Whitby in Yorkshire where they could be carved and moulded into elaborate jewels. Spanish jet was too soft for fine work and hence considered to be inferior to that from Whitby.

Jet was first used for mourning jewellery for court mourning for William IV then reached its peak in the mid-19th century. It was fashioned into earrings, necklaces, brooches, hair clips and hair combs, bracelets and lockets; and demand for the material reached its peak in the 1870s but by the 1880s demand slowed due to shortages of the best quality hard jet and competition from cheaper jet and man-made ones such as French jet which was made from dark glass and jet waste combined with rubber to make a mouldable compound. There was also vulcanite, (an early form of plastic which was much more affordable but prolonged exposure to sun caused any jewellery made of vulcanite to turn brown) as well as bois durci – a combination of hardwood, sawdust, blood and albumen mixed with binding and colourised agents which could be moulded by machine. Other alternatives included stained horn and Irish bog-oak which were mostly used by the lower middle and working classes.


By the second year black and white stones and material were permitted such as black onyx, black enamel, pearls, diamonds, cut steel and ivory. For half mourning, amethysts were a popular gemstone as were pearls and diamonds. Pearls were an interesting choice especially because of its redolent symbolism. As Beatriz Chadour-Sampson noted: “The cycle of life was marked by jewellery, and pearls were significant in the symbolism of childhood, marriage and death……black pearls featured on many of the mourning jewels that Victoria commissioned after Albert’s death in 1861 to give to her extensive family, confidantes and members of her household.” An example of this is a memorial pendant locket with a photograph of Prince Albert surmounted by a gold crown studded with small pearls and a black pearl at the base made by Garrard & Co in 1862 and now in the collection of the British Museum. Queen Victoria herself until the end of her life always wore diamonds and pearls with the latter sending out a clear message – pearls could be seen as “tears” and spoke of her continuing grief and anguish at the loss of her beloved Albert.

NPG 708; Queen Victoria by Lady Julia Abercromby, after  Heinrich von Angeli
by Lady Julia Abercromby, after Heinrich von Angeli, watercolour, 1883 (1875)

From the 18th century onwards, memorial jewellery in the form of brooches, pins, pendants and lockets became popular. They would be emblazoned with a portrait of the deceased or their name and year of birth and death or a lock of their hair. They use of symbolisms was also popular such as the cross; holly and thorns for the passion of Jesus; oak for strength and enduring love; the empty acorn cup which denoted the inevitable end of love and forget-me-nots.

memorial locket

Lockets described as the “most enduring and charming of mementoes” where a photograph or a lock of hair could be placed were one of the most widespread jewels and common amongst all classes. Their commemorative nature made them ideal jewels to mark important occasions such a birth, coming of age, engagement, marriage and death. For mourning they were made out of black enamel or carved from dark onyx or jet and could be studded with diamonds or pearls. Outside they could be plain or decorated with the person’s initials or the words “In Memory” or symbols such as the cross. These could be worn as pendants suspended from a chain around the neck or attached to bracelets.


The end of Victorian mourning etiquette and rituals

Even as early as the mid-19th century, there was already criticism about the excesses of mourning rituals and etiquette with the likes of Charles Dickens satirising these customs in his novels and William Morris refusing to bow to the conventions of the day by insisting on a simpler funeral and a shorter mourning period to be observed by his family. Critics felt that these mourning customs was too much, over the top and smacked of one upmanship. There was also condemnation about the lack of sincerity demonstrated by some women whose mourning clothes were too fashionable while others noted that since women bore the greatest burden of mourning, the strict codes and etiquette reinforced their subordinate status in society.

In addition there was the prohibitive cost of observing mourning rituals where families could go into debt over the cost of the funeral, having memorial objects made and the wardrobe that women especially needed during this period.

By the 1890s there was the beginning of a gradual retreat from the mourning customs of decades past. Women began to wear the mourning veil over the face only during the funeral while the Princess of Wales refused to wear crape to observe the mourning for her oldest son the Duke of Clarence when he died in 1892: and Princess Louise Duchess of Argyll did not wear crape either on the death of her mother Queen Victoria in 1901. The new king, Edward VII also decreed that court mourning would only be observed for three months and that “decent” rather than “deepest” mourning was to be worn.

Queen Alexandra mourning

When King Edward VII died in 1910, official court mourning was only for a month. It coincided with the London Season hence it became known as the “Black Season” and the famous 1910 Ascot races where instead of the showy dresses and hats of previous years, race goers were dressed in black from head to toe was dubbed “Black Ascot”.

However, what would hasten and cause the major breakdown in funeral and mourning etiquette was the First World War. Despite the huge number of deaths, not many women resorted to the customs of the past which had been in retreat even after 1901. As Lou Taylor again observed:

It was partly a question of morale, both for the troops on leave from the trenches and the public at large remaining at home. The sight of millions of women of all ages shrouded in crape would have been too much to bear. As made clear by Lady Duff Gordon, a great many women of every class were involved in war work and were far too busy to retire into periods of seclusion demanded by the old etiquette of mourning. As well as running charity and nursing organisations, women were taking on every kind of job left unmanned by the departing troops….the fashion magazines continued to give their sartorial advice but they commented frequently on the changes so evident in society. (pp.267-8)

During the early years of the war, there were some who continued to follow the mourning customs of the past but as the conflict dragged on and the losses mounted, the public began to see omnipresent black mourning as lowering morale for both the troops and civilians. Fabric shortages also meant that it became more expensive to order a full wardrobe of mourning attire and even dyeing proved to be costly. Crucially as well from 1910, there was a fashion for black clothing that had nothing to do with mourning, pre-war designers such as Lucile (Lady Duff Gordon) offered dresses and gowns in black then during the war, black dresses were worn for elegance, for office work or for the uniforms worn by women taking on male work such as being bus conductors and police constables. In the 1920s, this would be taken on further by Coco Chanel with her “little black dress” and even to this day, black is seen as both a practical and elegant choice for everyday wear.

White also became an increasingly becoming an alternative to black for mourning. This echoed the custom of medieval and Renaissance royal women wearing white clothing as well as countries in Asia such as China, Japan and Korea where white was traditionally the colour of mourning instead of black.

Increasingly, a number of women attempted to find alternative to traditional mourning attire such as wearing purple armbands or a sort of memorial pins or badges. It was, as Lou Taylor noted, to find “another way of showing that they mourned their menfolk who had not died in the normal way but had died for their country. It was perhaps an attempt to rationalise and cope with the deaths – a way of making the sacrifice and loss more bearable, and demonstrating that the deaths had not been in vain nor the lives of loved ones wasted.” (p. 269)

After the war, despite the determination to return women to their pre-war world of children, church and kitchen many women remained in employment and there was certainly more opportunity for them not only for gainful employment but to pursue sports and hobbies that had been denied to them and enter university and male dominated professions. There was certainly no way back for the mourning customs of the Victorian era and even the wearing of mourning jewellery died out by the end of WW1 where less and less memorial jewellery was being made.

However, some women during and after the First World War clung on to the mourning etiquette of the past with regards to clothes. While there were some who wore black for the rest of their lives others never emerged from half-mourning – seeing it as less aggressive than full on black but nonetheless seen as a tribute to a life lost and a mark of continuing affection for the deceased. For instance in Downton Abbey, from series 4 onwards, Cora is always almost seen in half mourning for her youngest daughter Sybil who died in childbirth. As mentioned earlier, mourning was a universally understood signal by which people showed what stage of the mourning process they had reached and that they needed to be treated with gentleness and consideration. Cora in this way sends a strong signal by way of mourning protocol to her husband Robert (and of course anyone else who knows the rules) as there are more than enough indications that she has neither wholly forgiven him nor forgotten what she thought was the role he played in their daughter’s death.





Further reading and viewing:

Helen Rappaport. Magnificent Obsession (London, 2012)

Nina Edwards. Dressed for War (London, 2015)

Beatriz Chadour-Sampson. Pearls (London, 2013)

Clare Phillips. Jewels and Jewellery (London, 2008)

John Morley. Death, Heaven and the Victorians (London, 1971)

Kay Staniland. In Royal Fashion (London, 1997)

Charlotte Gere & Judy Rudoe. Jewellery in the Age of Queen Victoria (London, 2010)

Lou Taylor. Mourning Dress: A Costume and Social History (London, 1983)

Judith Flanders. The Victorian House (London 2003)

Kate Hubbard. Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household (London, 2013)

Cassie Davis-Strodder, Jenny Lister & Lou Taylor. London Society Fashion 1905-1925: The Wardrobe of Heather Firbank (London, 2015)

David Cannadine. ‘War and Death, Grief and Mourning in Modern Britain’ in Joachim Whaley (ed.) Mirrors of Mortality: Studies in the Social History of Death (London, 1981) pp. 187-242

Jessica Regan. Women in Black: Fashioning Mourning in the 19th century (Metropolitan Museum of Art New York lecture) –