The Victorian in Mourning – who wore what, and for how long?

(For reasons which elude me completely, the text formatting has fallen apart toward the end of this article. I’ve lost the ability to control spacing between paragraphs and I’ve been unable to resolve the problem. So I’m posting anyway and will keep trying to straighten it out. Thanks for your understanding.)

Mourning pins

Mourning pins

Just because I haven’t been sewing doesn’t mean that I’ve been out of the historical dress world completely. I ran across this photo of mourning pins on another blog (sorry! can’t remember which – but this is their photo). I knew mourning was rigidly structured, but it never occurred to me that wearing nothing shiny included the pins. That is strict.

This got me thinking…just how complicated were these social rules? So, I dug around a bit and found although the rules varied a bit from place to place and through the Victorian era, the essentials changed little.

In Victorian society women were the social representatives of their husbands. They showed the world the depth of the family’s grieving by wearing appropriate clothing and following the prescribed rules that reflected this. They were the ones who gave structure and social propriety to the household’s mourning dress and rituals.

And social propriety was a big dealThe different periods of mourning were expected to reflect one’s natural period of grief. Which is not a bad idea, since it allows a person to mourn and grieve publicly, not withhold their emotions and stoically “get a grip” as our current society expects.

The period of time mourning clothes were worn, and what was worn, varied by how one was related to or associated with the deceased. It was a labyrinthine tangle of rules to the extent that advice on what mourning clothes to wear and what mourning etiquette to follow abounded in magazines for women.

So how long was long enough? And who had to wear what when?

How Long Mourning Clothes Should be Worn

“The Workwoman’s Guide” of 1840 provided these guidelines: “Mourning for a parent was six months or a year. For children, if above ten years old, from six months to a year; below that age, from three to six months; for an infant, six weeks and upwards. For bothers and sisters, six to eight months. For uncles and aunts, three to six months. For cousins, or uncles and aunts, related by marriage, from six weeks to three months. For more distant relations or friends, from three weeks and upwards.”

Another suggests: “Friends, acquaintances, and employees wore mourning to a greater or lesser degree depending on their relationship to the deceased. Mourning was worn for six months for a sibling. Parents would wear mourning for a child for “as long as they feel so disposed”. A widow was supposed to wear mourning for two years…”

The standard mourning time for a widower was two years, but it was up to his discretion when to end his single status. Men could go about their daily lives and continue to work. Typically young unmarried men stayed in mourning for as long as the women in the household did.

Appropriate Mourning Attire

People wore black all the time, the difference for mourning was the plain styling and dull fabrics used, and black trim applied to any white article of clothing.

Men had it easy – they simply wore their usual dark suits along with black gloves, hatbands and cravats. Children were not required to wear mourning clothes, though girls sometimes wore white dresses.

A particular kind of ribbon, collectively referred to as love ribbons, was worn in mourning and could be either black or white. This was a plain gauze ribbon, without any pattern on it but stripes. Children who were in mourning for other children frequently wore a great deal of white, such as white ribbons applied to hats, hair, button holes, etc., and white handkerchiefs, gloves sewed with black and, for very young children, white frocks with black ribbons.

Baby dressed in white with mourning ribbons.

Baby dressed in white with mourning ribbons.

Even infants did not escape – they often had ribbons of black or deep purple affixed to their dresses.

“Attire” included all accessories and accoutrements, not just clothing. Prayer books and bibles had to be bound in Black morocco leather. Handkerchiefs were edged in black. The lists were extensive, but all touches were intended to convey, through a series of signs and symbols, visual messages the depth of feelings and sadness the wearer felt at the loss.

Widows were expected to wear special clothes to indicate that they were in mourning for up to four years after the death of her husband, but the customary cycle of mourning lasted two to three years and widow could choose to wear such attire for the rest of her life. They were slowly allowed to re-introduce conventional clothing at specific time periods generally known as “full mourning”, “second mourning”, and “half mourning”.

To change the costume earlier was considered disrespectful to the decedent and, if the widow was still young and attractive, suggestive of potential sexual promiscuity. (wikipedia)

Full Mourning

Full mourning, a period of a year and one day, was represented with dull black clothing without ornament. The clothing was frequently made of crape (with an “a”) – silk that had been chemically treated to give it a roughened, crimped and dull surface. Other fabrics, such as bombazine, were also used as long as they had no shine.

In 1865, a social historian noted “… Women, … had to put aside all their ordinary clothes and wear nothing but black, in the appropriate materials and with particular accessories, for the first stages of mourning.”

The most recognizable item of full mourning was the weeping veil of black crape.

If a women had no means of income and small children to support, marriage was allowed after this period. I found a reference to cases of women returning to black clothing on the day after marrying again.

While in full mourning, a woman was sequestered in her home for the full year and one day, and not allowed to go out unless it was to attend church. Allowances were made if an individual’s nature (anxiety, agitation and such) was not able to bear the isolation.

Second Mourning

Second mourning, a period of nine months, allowed for minor ornamentation by implementing fabric trim and mourning jewelry.

The main dress was still made from a lusterless fabric, but trims with some luster were permitted. Subdued decoration with jet jewelry or beads was allowed. The weeping veil was lifted and worn back over the head. Elderly widows frequently remained in this stage of mourning for the rest of their lives.
During second mourning, a woman could leave the house for minor social engagements. However attendance at large social gatherings and events, such as balls and theater was not permitted as such gaiety would distract the mourning widow from her duty to grieve and, in general, be a “downer” to everyone else.
Half Mourning
Half mourning lasted from three to six months and was represented by more elaborate fabrics used as trim. Wearing half-mourning attire signified the beginning of a gradual return to active life.
Gradually easing back into color was expected coming out of half mourning. Grey, lavender, and other very subdued colors, such as violet, pansy, purple, heliotrope, and soft mauves, could be introduced. White collars and gloves could be worn again. Fabrics with some luster could be used again. Each transition was to be done gradually. There was no restriction on jewelry.
So, you may ask, where did all this clothing come from? Dressing a large family in mourning was neither easy nor inexpensive. it was considered bad luck to keep mourning clothes – particularly crape – in the house after mourning ended. That meant buying clothes all over again when the next loved one passed.
Someone had to provide the clothes quickly to mourners and mourning became a very lucrative business. Having the money to afford proper mourning dress and accoutrements became a status symbol, with tailors and entire warehouses devoted to the fashion by the late 1840s, where a shopper would go to the “Mitigated Affliction Department” for half-mourning.
The largest and best known of them in London was Jay’s of Regent Street, which opened in 1841. Jay’s served as a kind of warehouse for mourners: it provided every conceivable item of clothing you and your family could need. And you were bound to be repeat customers.


Victorian Funereal Trivia: Victorians were terrified of being interred alive which, given the state of the medical arts at the time, was not as impossible as one might think. Coffins were created with a pulley system that would allow the entrapped person to ring a bell, that was above ground, to alert passersby to their dire circumstance. Since the chance of someone being in the cemetery when a bell was rung was fairly low, many cemeteries hired guards to patrol the grounds, specifically listening for the ringing of a bell.

And that is the origin of the term “saved by the bell.”

Late Entry – CORRECTION: “Saved by the bell” comes from boxing, where the sounding of the bell to indicate the end of a round could save one from being knocked out and losing the match. (My apologies for the sharing of incorrect information…I’d fire the fact-checker, but it’s me.)

9 thoughts on “The Victorian in Mourning – who wore what, and for how long?

  1. I am interested in your comment that young girls often wore white instead of black in mourning. I have a photograph of my grandmother and 11 of her siblings on the day of their father’s funeral (1913 in New Hampshire). My grandmother is the only one wearing white and it’s always been explained that it was because she was still under 18. But I’ve never found any mention anywhere that wearing white was a custom.

    • Oops! Thank you, thank you for setting me straight and for the link. I detest spreading false information – I found this reference in a lot of places and thought it was good information. Look like a lot of places have it wrong.

      • You’re more than welcome! I work at a living history site, and we’ve been guilty of sharing information that we later find out is just widespread myth! It’s challenging to discern fact from fiction…but we try! Thanks for understanding that I meant no disrespect. 🙂

      • Of course I understand and no disrespect taken at all. I really do want to be corrected when I make an error. It’s how I learn what is correct and what’s not. Thank you!

  2. I’ve really enjoyed researching all the mourning clothing information, and found one tidbit for you: some families couldn’t afford to buy new mourning clothes, so their current clothing was tossed into a vat of black dye.
    I have this interesting sales box of mourning pins too on my Pinterest page. They’re really not shiny, just reflected my flash.
    Val -Time Traveling in Costume

    • While I was researching I found a notation that some of the black dyes used had toxic components that were absorbed through the skin. If you wore the same garment to a lot of funerals or through many/extended periods of mourning there was a reasonable likelihood that you’d become ill.
      PS – thanks for the link!

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