Victorian Mourning Culture: Women as the True Mourners

For Victorian women, mourning was an emotional outlet, an acceptable public display in a strict social sphere. Women had power in their mourning; they had the responsibility to show grief and love of the deceased. While men were expected to quietly grieve continuing their everyday customs as though nothing was wrong, the women’s role was compose themselves in the opposite way. This practice may be viewed today as prohibitive and unfair, in the 19th century, these actions allowed power beyond a woman’s sphere of influence in the home.

Black crepe mourning veil made in Columbus, Ohio, around 1900 (H 20920).

Black crepe mourning veil made in Columbus, Ohio, around 1900 (H 20920).

The mourning period for men and women was the same – a first cousin would be mourned for as little as six weeks, while a widow was expected to mourn her husband for two and a half years. However, women had many social protocols to be followed. After her husband passed, a widow would immediately fall into Deep Mourning for one year. During this period, the widow was to maintain strict social isolation, only accepting formal invitations from close relatives and avoiding public spaces and pleasurable occasions. After a year and a day, although it was advised to put off the change for the sake of good taste, a widow was to follow into Second Mourning, which allowed more social freedom and a change in clothing. After nine months, Third Mourning began, which resulted in more freedom and another change in clothing. This third period lasted until the end of the second year. These first three mourning periods were considered Full Mourning. After two years, a widow entered into Half Mourning, which would last from an additional six months to the rest of their lives with an additional change in clothing. While some women never came out of half-mourning – including Queen Victoria – the Grand Maison de Noir, a mourning warehouse in Paris, advised its customers that “everyone is free to prolong this period of wearing mourning but it is in good taste to effect any exaggeration in this as over other circumstances.” While it was important to properly grieve, mourning placed a social and cultural burden both on the mourner and on those around them.

Formal cape worn during the later stages of mourning  between 1880 and 1900 (H 75360).

Formal cape worn during the later stages of mourning between 1880 and 1900 (H 75360).

One distinct difference did exist between widows and widowers. Unlike widows, widowers were allowed to remarry as soon as they desired. A man did not even have to wait until he was out of mourning for his first wife in order to marry his second. “The Grand Maison de Noir declared that such a man should leave off his mourning for the ceremony but take it up the next day. Furthermore, ‘his new wife should equally associate herself with his mourning’, wearing only black or shades of half-mourning in memory of her predecessor.”

Colors, styles, and decorations differed in women’s clothing for each stage of mourning. A woman in Deep Mourning would wear a dull, black, crape-covered dress with a single flounce at the waist. Her head was to be covered at all times, a black hat and veil when she emerged from her home, and a white indoor cap when she was at home. With the exception of the indoor cap and handkerchief, the widow’s entire wardrobe was black. During Second Mourning, less crape was worn; the material was applied to her wardrobe in a more elaborate way. Throughout this mourning period, women were slowly allowed to add more decorations and trim to their clothing. In Third Mourning, crape was discarded and black trimmed with black ribbon, lace, embroidery, and jet was allowed. It was not until Half Mourning began that a woman was allowed to discard the black dress and wear the special half mourning colors – a range of soft purples. After the period of Half Mourning was over, a woman could resume wearing any style and color of clothing and fully re-enter society.

Textiles associated with female mourning went far beyond just the dress. Check back next week to learn about a mourner’s accessories.

Caitlin Smith, History Collections Intern

National Park Service. “The Custom of Mourning During the Victorian Era.” National Park Service (2011): 1-5.
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.

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