Next week, I'll be posting some information about the dress, plus gloating about how happy I am with my dyed Renoir boots.)
The subject of mourning is a very popular one when it comes to the mythology of the Victorian period. Traditional rules of mourning, however, go back further than Prince Albert's death, Victoria's reign, or even the nineteenth century.
The concept of mourning in specific clothing is very, very old, but to focus specifically on Western European codes involving specific styles of dress, stages of intensity, and periods of time, a mourning code including concepts of first and second mourning extends at least as far back as the 17th century. Samuel Pepys noted in his diary that Anne Hyde, the Duchess of York, was in second mourning for her mother in "black, edged with ermine" four months after the death, and third and half-mourning followed second (though third seems to have dropped out of usage by the mid-18th century). While these were generally successive dress codes meant to transition a person out of deepest mourning, half-mourning was also a primary stage of mourning worn for more distant relations. Providing mourning for servants was a status marker due to the financial outlay required, and Continental sumptuary laws of the time often forbade it.
|The Mourning Virgin, copy after Dieric Bouts, ca. 1525; MMA 71.156 (OASC)|
France had a similar system of mourning levels, at least by the 1720s, in great mourning (grand deuil) and lesser mourning (petit deuil): great mourning consisted of a totally unornamented outfit of black wool, worn with a long cloak and a band of crêpe around the hat, widows adding a black crêpe veil, while lesser mourning was made from serge or crêpon (a heavier silk or wool crêpe) and made use of blue and white ribbons as well as black. Widows, their clothing financed by the estate's heirs, were expected to take a year of mourning in which they did not remarry, out of respect for their husbands, but at this time the prohibition against quick remarriage was much more important than actually wearing mourning clothes during the full year. Outside of court mourning for a member of royalty, great mourning dress was only expected to be worn for a deceased parent, grandparent, parent-in-law, sibling, or spouse; mourning for one's descendants was supposed to only include the long wool cloak, while a short cloak or petit deuil were worn for uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces, and nephews.
|"Manner of wearing informal mourning", Galerie des Modes, 1781|
|I: Mr B. Finds Pamela Writing, Joseph Highmore, 1743-4; Tate Collection N03573|
|Mourning picture, 1800-1810; MMA 1983.20 (OASC)|
|From the Ladies' Museum, General Mourning, 1830|
The American rules, as given in The Knickerbocker in 1840, were a little different than the English and French:
|Second mourning dress, ca. 1848; MMA 1994.575.0003 (OASC)|
Etiquette books had been written since the eighteenth century, but production increased during the nineteenth. While fashion magazines give us very detailed information about what garments were acceptable, they are less informative on the subject of other mourning customs. Visiting cards of someone in mourning were to have a thick black border while those for half-mourning would have a narrower one; black sealing wax was to be used during both. Making visits of condolence was a new custom in England (at least) in the 1850s, requiring a mourning card of one's own to be sent up, and women to dress in black silk or another plain color.
In the 1860s, the description of mourning customs, including dress, increased and became more detailed. This is generally attributed to a Victorian "cult of mourning" proceeding from the death of Prince Albert in 1861, but many of the customs may have already been in use: the stages of mourning dress, so often represented as a facet of uniquely Victorian repression, were clearly of an earlier date. It seems likely that the other customs may have been in use, and were only coming into print in the mid-Victorian era. In actuality, there was a Victorian cult of etiquette books, especially in America.
|Mourning dress, ca. 1867; MMA 1982.256 (OASC)|
|Hat with mourning band, Knox, 1890; MMA 2009.300.4423 (OASC)|
|Hat for second mourning, West's, ca. 1888; MMA 2009.300.1524 (OASC)|
|"Walking Suit in Queen's Mourning", Dry Goods Reporter, 1902|
Etiquette books were still prescribing the same long periods of mourning and social seclusion in the 1920s, for both women and men. While they had always made references to those who left off mourning too early, the later books' lengthy emphasis on "sloppy" or inappropriate dress while in mourning seem to be based in a widespread social change, an increasing impatience with long or very plain mourning. The concept of levels of mourning continued through the 1940s, etiquette books agreeing that months of black, transitioning into black and white, and then lighter colors were appropriate (while being sympathetic to those not cooperating with the scheme). It was not until the 1950s that the rules were completely abandoned.
The point of wearing mourning, as summed up in the mid-eighteenth century etiquette book The Young Gentleman and Lady Instructed, was to prevent one from having to wear distressingly cheerful clothes while grieving, and to represent that grief to the rest of the world. Today, mourning rules are often seen as social laws that forced people - especially women, given that widows dressed in it the longest - to repress themselves and miss out on life. As with corsets, I lay this idea at the door of Gone With the Wind. The scenes in which Scarlett, who never loved her husband, feels trapped by the mourning she's forced to wear and resents having to refrain from gaiety are well-known.
The need for etiquette books always represents that people are not behaving in a standardized fashion as the books suggest. If they were routinely wearing mourning as long as the etiquette books ordered and in those fabrics, there would have been no need for such detailed descriptions. The social stigma of a nineteenth century widow wearing deep mourning for only nine months rather than a year, for example, might not have been generally seen as disrespectful. In fact, it was often held that following the rules of mourning behavior was meant to follow one's desire to mourn, that continuing a show of mourning after one wanted to rejoin normal life was undesirable or hypocritical, and that outsiders should not judge mourners for not behaving fully in line with the rules.
Mourning etiquette was also not just created to restrain the behavior of the bereaved into accepted forms of grief. Etiquette books instructed their friends in polite manners toward the bereaved as well, in order to be sensitive and sympathetic. Complimentary mourning, worn for relationships that did not require a specific mourning period or depth of mourning, allowed people to express their sympathy for those who had lost a parent, child,or sibling. Some recommended that, in order to signal the end of their mourning, the bereaved should send their cards (presumably without black borders) to their friends; others suggested that "no invitations of a gay social character" be sent to the bereaved until after three months of mourning, allowing them to decide when they were ready to accept.
It's very easy to look at historical mourning traditions as a distant and strange expectation, but the population of the past did not have the same expectations and standards that we do today. The idea of dressing fully in black for some months was normal, something that everyone would have experienced from a young age. It is difficult to imagine from our perspective, but it is also difficult to imagine living at a time when mortality rates were so much higher.
Er. Happy Halloween?
|"Mourning Dress", Ackermann's, December 1811|