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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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) – http://www.metmuseum.org/metmedia/video/lectures/women-in-black