The costume associated with mourning is vastly different in different cultures, but the meaning of mourning dress is relatively similar worldwide: to express respect for the dead, and to keep one’s own appearance from distracting from the ceremonies surrounding death. In most of the western world, the color that dominates most mourners’ wardrobes is black, while the style and cut of mourning clothes is relatively unaffected by their purpose. Especially in the 19th century, ceremonial dress retained its complexity and stylishness whether it was made of colorful prints or solids, for church wear, or the somber black of the grave-side.
Women’s mourning clothes in particular bore little dissimilarity to their other modest formalwear, apart from the required black hue and a predominance of veils. Among the lower classes, who could not afford to make an entirely new dress for use at only one occasion, it was customary to dye one’s best dress or waistcoat black, particularly if the deceased was a close relative (Masson and Reveley, 1988). In large, well-to-do families, it was often the case that the servants were given mourning clothes, hats, and veils, which were used throughout the lengthy period of “high mourning,” lasting from one to twelve months.
During that time, the widow was expected to adhere to a stringent set of rules governing what she could wear, and when she was permitted to gradually ease back into normal clothing. These rules were very specific concerning jewelry and cloth; the only things a widow in late 19th century Paris was supposed to wear for the first four and a half months after her husband’s death were black wool dresses, a hood and veil, black linen gloves and a bronze belt-buckle, if necessary (Perrot, 1990).
A wealthy widow was expected to purchase an entirely new wardrobe constructed mostly out of black wool and crepe, heavy fabrics that added their depressing weight to the effect of the already somber hue. Mourning fashions were chronicled in Harper’s Bazaar, with the sense that the dictates of fashion should override one’s true feelings about the deceased as well as concern for one’s own health: A deep veil is worn at the back of the bonnet, but not over the head or face like the widow’s veil, which covers the entire person when down.
This fashion is very much objected to by doctors, who think many diseases of the eye come by this means, and advise for common use thin nuns’ veiling instead of crape, which sheds its pernicious dye into the sensitive nostrils, producing catarrhal disease as well as blindness and cataract of the eye. It is a thousand pities that fashion dictates the crape veil, but so it is. It is the very banner of woe, and no one has the courage to go without it. We can only suggest to mourners wearing it that they should pin a small veil of black tulle over the eyes and nose, and throw back the heavy crape as often as possible, for health’s sake.
Harper’s Bazaar, 1886, emphasis added) The origin of the increase in the popularity of mourning in the 19th century stem from two sources: the romanticism surrounding death in the literature of the period, and Queen Victoria’s forty-year mourning for her late husband, Prince Albert (Chicago Historical Society, 1998). Gothic novels like Wuthering Heights and the works of Edgar Allen Poe harped on death’s sentimental aspect, and the importance of the status quo made the loss of a member of society much more shocking and traumatic than today.
Queen Victoria’s mourning, which began in 1861, set a precedent for British and American widows, and associated mourning with virtue and piety, which had again become popular under her reign. The American Civil War, which followed hard upon Prince Alberts death, was the occasion for many women to put these principles and trends into practice. The veil is, after the traditional black color, perhaps the most recognizable habit of mourning in the 19th century. The widows veil was completely opaque to observers, and as in the above quote, covers the body from head to foot.
As such, it is reminiscent of the traditional Muslim hijab, which in its most extreme form covers the entire body with the exception of a lace patch covering the eyes (Boucher, 1987). The purpose of the hijab is to shield men from the distraction of womens beauty. The 19th-century female mourners veil served a similar, if less insidiously misogynistic purpose: to shield the world from the mourners pitiable sorrow. It hid the mourners true face in order to spare her the embarrasment of public tears, and to make it easier for her to encounter other people without being obliged to smile or put on a social face.
The presence of the veil in female costumes for mourning as well as weddings suggests that the veil creates a sacred, contemplative space in which a woman may exist during a very emotional period of her life. It is also a substitute for male protection – the bride appears veiled in public until she has become the legal ward of her husband, and the widow appears veiled in public because she has ceased to have the immediate physical protection of a husband.
This psycho-social aspect certainly was not explicit in the Victorian use of the veil in either ceremony, but the practice of covering the face in any circumstance has a profound psychological effect on both the subject and the observer. The color of the mourners robes, whether male or female, is similar in the Western hemisphere throughout the 19th century, as well as in preceding and following centuries. Black, the color of funerals, is associated in Western culture with death, decay, and the unknown. This is not universally true: in northern Africa the traditional funerary color is white, and in most of China it is yellow (Boucher, 1987).
From a western perspective, these colors – white and yellow – seem singularly unsuitable for mourners garb, since we tend to associate them with innocence and sunlight. But it is important to remember that cultural associations with colors are not full characterizations of the colors themselves; white could just as easily be associated with bones, and yellow with jaundice or other illness. The coupling of black coloring with dull, uncomfortable textiles such as wool, crepe, and gabardine, creates an immediate environment for the mourner that is one of bodily denial.
The long funeral ceremonies of the 19th century necessitated patience with itchy, overinsulating clothes. The long periods of mourning required the immediate family of the deceased to wear clothes that detracted from their individuality or attractiveness, and which inspired only sadness in those they encountered socially (Harpers Bazar, 1886). This denial of individual comfort in pursuit of piety is one of the most salient features of any culture dominated by Christianity, although it usually occurs ceremonially, as the exception and not the rule.
In conclusion, the mourning practices of the 19th century were inextricably bound to the clothing associated with mourning. Being widowed was an expensive process, which in the middle and upper classes required the purchase of an entirely new wardrobe made along extremely specific guidelines that prohibited certain fabrics and adornments until a certain period of time had elapsed. The occurence of many wars and revolutions during the 19th century, which precipitated the deaths of many men and women, may have contributed to the codification of mourning.
Certainly the mourning practiced by Queen Victoria after 1861 influenced the upper and middle classes of Britain and America. Overall, the style and cut of the clothing did not change in the most general sense, which, in an era when popular fashion was beginning to take a particularly strong hold, is not terribly surprising. However, the subtle changes in the dress of mourners reflect moral and societal changes, and may indicate cultural themes like the meaning of black garments.