Women’s clothing in the Victorian Era extended beyond simple clothing and in mourning, women had special accessories for this period. When a loved one died, everything from hair pieces to gloves was affected. In these socially expected ways women could reflect their grief through their appearance.
The simplicity and colors in accessories mirrored those in female clothing. Few accessories, other than those that were considered necessary (like gloves and parasols) were worn during the periods of deepest morning. Accessories used were to be black and devoid of decorations. As the mourning period continued, additional accessories were added to the woman’s wardrobe, with more decorations and colors other than black.
These gloves (H 77210) would have been worn later in the mourning period, as they have minimal black additions.
Despite the simplicity in mourning’s clothing, the wardrobe was expected to be extensive, completely replacing the mourner’s previous wardrobe in size and scope. To help grieving widows through their First Mourning, Sylvia’s Home Journal published a complete list of the clothes they would need in 1881. For the first year of their two-and-a-half year mourning period, widows were expected to have:
“One best dress of Paramatta covered entirely with crape
One dress, either a costume of Cyprus crape, or an old black dress covered with Rainproof crape.
One Paramatta mantle lined with silk, and deeply trimmed with crape.
One warmer jacket of cloth lined and trimmed with crape.
One bonnet of best silk crape, with long veil.
One bonnet of Rainproof crape, with crape veil.
Twelve collars and cuffs of muslin or lawn, with deep hems, several sets must be provided, say six of each kind.
One black stuff petticoat.
Four pairs of black hose, either silk, cashmere, or spun silk.
Twelve handkerchiefs with black borders, for ordinary use, cambric. Twelve of finer cambric for better occasions.
Caps either of lisse, tulle, or tarlatan, shape depending much upon age; young widows wear chiefly the Marie Stuart shape but all widows’ caps have long streamers. A good plan is to buy extra streamers and a bow.
Summer parasol of silk, deeply trimmed with crape, almost covered with it but no lace or fringe for the first year. Afterwards mourning fringe might be put on.
Muff of Paramatta and trimmed with crape.
No ornaments except jet, for the first year. Furs are not admissible in widow’s First mourning, though very dark sealskin and astrakhan can be worn when the dress is changed.”
This extensive list of mourning attire does not include jewelry, which was to be simple, jet, and largely memorial in nature.
The jet (a minor gemstone) industry boomed during the Victorian Era, as jewelry and accessories like this headband (H 70307) were heavily decorated with jet which, being black, made it appropriate to wear while in mourning.
Magazines and journals like Sylvia’s Home Journal offer insight into the Victorian mourning culture. Aside from articles assisting women in how long they were expected to mourn and what was the appropriate wardrobe and accessories, these journals also offer insight into the social customs. According to the literature from the period, women saved their mourning clothes and reused the pieces during the next death. This was customary until it the thought arose that it was bad luck to keep mourning attire in the house when not in mourning. Because of concern with bad luck, some women bought a new mourning wardrobe after each death if they could afford it, dye their colored clothing black, or, pragmatically, sell their colored clothing and buy the mourning clothing from a widow who had just finished her mourning period. This last option was particularly popular with young widows.
The simplicity of the fan (H 75326), in combination with the crepe fabric, would have quickly identified the user as a woman in mourning.
Check back next time to learn more about mourning jewelry and hair working.
Caitlin Smith, History Collections Intern
National Park Service. “The Custom of Mourning During the Victorian Era.” National Park Service (2011): 1-5. http://www.nps.gov/jofl/historyculture/upload/MourningArticle2011.rtf.
Taylor, Lou. Mourning Dress: A Costume and Social History. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1983.
Zielke, Melissa. “Forget-Me-Nots: Victorian Women, Mourning, and the Construction of a Feminine Historical Memory.” Material History Review 58 (2003): 52-66.