Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Fashion of Mourning

I was inspired to do a little search on the stages of mourning dress, based on the caption of one of the photos at the mourning museum (something to the effect of "...so in so in the second stages of mourning dress..."). Anyhow - an excerpt from a good, concise website:

"The Fashion to Mourn Publicly:

The complexities of wearing mourning dress took hold as the Victorian era progressed following the death of Prince Albert in 1861. Queen Victoria wore her widow’s weeds for the long remainder of her life until 1901, when the Edwardian era began. Many who saw themselves as high society including those in the lower classes followed her example.

The middle classes in particular, wishing to follow and accept the higher canons of decency of the upper classes, emulated every example she set. They liked to use black edged stationery, envelopes, notepaper and visiting cards. They tied little black or purple ribbons around dressing table bottles and the like and added similar purple or black ribbons even to the clothing of infants.

Prayer books and bibles had to be bound in Black morocco leather and handkerchiefs edged in black. The list was endless, but all touches were intended to convey to the onlooker through a series of signs and symbols visual messages that the deepest feelings of sadness were felt at the loss...

Mourning Clothes and Crape

Mourning was an expensive activity and also wasteful, because it also had to be fashionable. Identical in fashion styling to the modes of the day, it used different colours and materials. When more than one death occurred in a family with little space between them, mourning clothes would inevitably be worn for several years non stop. As normal clothes were put away they would often be out of fashion by the time mourning was over so they were sometimes remodelled and often discarded.

Crape (always spelt with an ‘a’ to indicate mourning crape) was the most used fabric for mourning clothes. It was used in such vast quantities in the 1890s that Courtaulds built a textile empire on the sales of the crape cloth alone. Crape was dull looking silk gauze like a crimped and stiff textured material and mostly dyed the deepest of blacks, although white crape was used for the widow's cap.

Black was the chief mourning colour in the immediate months after a death for deepest mourning. Dull surfaced black fabrics such as crape, plain bombazine, paramatta, merino wool and cashmere were also favoured and used depending on income...

Stages of Mourning

A widow would mourn for two and a half years, with the first year and a day in full mourning. During that time pieces of the crape covered just about all of a garment at deepest mourning, but the crape was partially removed to reach the period of secondary mourning which lasted nine months. After that the crape was defunct and a widow could wear fancier lusher fabrics or fabric trims made from black velvets and silk and have them adorned with jet trimming, lace, fringe and ribbons.

In the final six months a period called half mourning began. Ordinary clothes could be worn in acceptable subdued shades of grey, white or purple, violet, pansy, heliotrope, soft mauves and of course black. Every change was subtle and gradual, beginning firstly with trims of these colours being added to the black dresses. These were the transitional mourning dresses from secondary mourning to the final stage of lesser ordinary half mourning where colours like purple and cream rosettes, bows, belts and streamers along with jet stones or buttons were introduced.

Similar rules applied for the wearing of hats or bonnets. As the mourning progressed, so the hats and bonnets became more trimmed and fancy, whilst veils became shorter until they were eventually removed altogether...

The Demise of Excessive Mourning

The fashion for heavy mourning was drastically reduced during the Edwardian era and even more so after the Great War. So many individuals died that just about everyone was in mourning for someone. By 1918 a whole new attitude had developed and this was hastened even further by the Second World War."

I think it's interesting that mourning clothing was inspired by Queen Victoria - that even one who is in the deepest stages of loss has an eye on the Who's Who of Grieving. The last image that I can remember in which fashion and image are united with grieving are shots of Jackie Kennedy...it makes me wonder about "showing" people that you are grieving: is it done because the griever is unsure of the authenticity of their own grief therefore "watch me grieve watch me be sad I swear I loved the deceased and in watching me you wouldn't doubt that at all..." or does conforming to a sort of etiquette help the griever uphold a sense of strength and grace that they feel they've lost? Is custom and tradition in place to help us through the process of grieving?

In Asia the color for grieving is off-white - families will make clothing out of muslin. I remember when I was in seventh grade I wanted to make a kerchief to wear to the Renaissance fair and I fashioned one out of some old muslin I found in the garage. When my mother came home and saw that muslin on my head she 'bout had a heart-attack and started screaming at me. Apparently it was material she had bought for my grandfather's funeral years earlier. It really really spooked her. Yeah. My bad.


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