Upon the death of a loved one, both men and women during the Victorian era were expected to follow stringent rules on how society expected them to act, dress and conduct themselves during a rather extensive period of mourning. From lavish funerals and horse-drawn carriages to elaborate graveside monuments, it seems the Victorians were obsessed with mourning.
So what precipitated this culture of mourning?
Quite simply, the death of Prince Albert. Widowed at age forty-two, Queen Victoria fell deep into the throws of grief and mourning and proceeded to wear mourning garb for the next forty years of her life. She required that her court do the same. The aristocracy followed suit and new mourning rituals filtered down through all classes of British society.
Adherence to these new mores was seen as essential for showcasing the wealth and class of Victorian families. Ladies’ magazines such as Cassell’s contained articles with tips for proper mourning including stopping clocks at the moment of death, drawing curtains, and covering mirrors to prevent the spirit of the deceased becoming trapped in its reflective glass. It was not uncommon for the lady of the house to dress her servants in black as a demonstration of an entire household in mourning.
According to the Victorian etiquette manual Polite Society at Home and Abroad, upon the death of a husband, a widow was expected to go into a period of Full Mourning, also called First Mourning, for one year. During this time she was only allowed to wear black, symbolizing spiritual darkness, and could not appear in public without it. Neither was she allowed out in public without a black mourning veil, commonly known as a weeping veil, covering her face. Considered callous and even immoral, luxurious fabrics like furs, satin or velvet were strictly forbidden. Mourning dresses were usually trimmed with crape, a hard, scratchy silk fabric with a distinctively crisp, crimped appearance.
If the woman did not have black attire nor the means to acquire any, she would die a lighter dress. Women from the lower classes or with children to support, were allowed to look for a new husband after this period of Full Mourning. If, however, she had no dependents or serious need for money, she would then enter a period of Second Mourning, which lasted for nine more months. Second Mourning meant a relaxation of the rules, or “slighting the mourning.” The veil, while still worn, could now at least be raised when out in public, but mourning etiquette dictated that black was still the only color that was permissible for clothing. She could also exchange the uncomfortable crape from her gown for a few subtle lacy embellishments.
The final stage of traditional Victorian mourning was Third Mourning, or Half-mourning, and lasted anywhere from three to six months. The color of cloth lightened now to grey tones of blue, green and purple. If she was a woman of means, now was the time that society considered it acceptable for her to start looking for a new husband.
Mourning traditions for men were similar to women in that they were expected to wear dark suits with black hat and or arm bands. A widower who had lost his wife was expected to mourn for two years, however as with women with dependents, if a man had children to care for, society did allow for him to end mourning sooner and go back to conducting business or work. An unmarried man who had lost a close relation such as a mother, sister or cousin, might carry out the full three stages of mourning, same as widows did, lasting the full two to two-and-a-half years. Children were not expected to wear mourning clothes.
Although jewelry was prohibited during deep mourning, Second Mourning allowed for commemorative jewelry or mourning jewelry to be worn. Victorians revived the art of eye miniatures, tiny portraits of an eye of departed loved one painted on brooches, bracelets, lockets and rings. Another popular form of mourning jewelry popularized by Queen Victoria combined jet, a hard, black coal-like material with woven hair of the deceased. It was already common practice for people to keep a lock of a loved one’s hair after their death and preserve it as a memento of their deceased relatives. Depending on the amount of hair taken from the corpse, the memento might be sent to hair weavers who would design intricate braided ropes used to make watch-chains or necklaces. Mourning lockets and rings had tiny compartments where a lock of hair or even a tooth could be stored as a remembrance.
The strict compliance to the rules of bereavement meant appropriate clothing needed to be readily available to mourners. Many shops catered to the trade. The largest and best known of them in London was Jay’s of Regent Street. Known as a kind of warehouse for mourners, Jay’s provided every conceivable item of clothing a proper Victorian family could need. Considering Victorians found it bad luck to keep mourning clothes, especially crape, in the house after mourning ended, businesses like Jay’s were a lucrative business.
With the passing of Queen Victoria in 1901, much of the world left deep mourning behind but for the Victorians, strict adherence to the rituals of mourning brought constant awareness of the fragility of life. A reminder that death was an ever-present possibility and that he or she should lead a good life because death could strike without warning.