The Sign and Statement of Loss

I have been, for one reason and another, thinking about mourning.  There have been several deaths in our circle this year, and after one of them my daughter chose to wear what I can only call “mourning” to school the next day: black shirt, skirt, stockings, and boots.  Which startled me–only because I don’t know that I’ve ever worn all-black after a death, not from lack of respect, but because I didn’t always have black to wear. When I see a funeral on a TV show, I wonder: do all these people have mourning wardrobes?  Even the little kids are often in little black suits or dresses (despite the advice of Emily Post, who says children of eight and under are never dressed in black).  All this made me wonder about mourning: the why, the what.

The why is both simple and complex: particularly if you are in the decedent’s family, mourning is meant to indicate loss.  Today, when many people wear all black as a fashion statement, that doesn’t work so well except at a funeral.  But you wear mourning, as much as anything else, as a useful social cue: it shows to the people around the mourner that jokes or thoughtless comments are not appropriate.  Mourning could also flag where the mourners were in the grieving process.  Which is where it started getting complex.

There were certainly rules dictating mourning in Sarah Tolerance’s time, although these rules became infinitely more complex in Victoria’s time–in part, I suspect, because it became a profit center (one manufacturer of funeral crape–a soft, matte-black silk much used for veils, caps, and dresses–went under when mourning customs liberalized in the 20th century).  And of course, how you mourned depended on your social class, and your relation to the deceased.  While the fashion magazines of the time are full of mourning and half-mourning designs, only the very wealthy had a new mourning wardrobe made up.  More often one might make, or have made, one garment, and take apart another garment or two, dye them black, and sew them back together.  Suitable fabrics were wool, bombazine (a wool/silk blend), crape, black-dyed muslin; widows were not supposed to wear anything but black wool or bombazine, both of which had no luster.  Lack of sparkle, indeed, was a theme.

The rules for widows were, of course, the most complex.  For the first  year a widow wore strictest black, with maybe a little very plain white lace at the throat or cuffs, and for some reason the hem of a mourning gown was supposed to be at least three inches deep (I’ve tried to find the reason; if anyone knows, please let me know).  She wore a black cap–as modest as possible–and when she went out, a black crape veil over her bonnet.  According to Emily Post, writing a century later, this unrelieved black was supposed to offer a widow protection:

A widow or mother, in the newness of her heavy veil, has her hard path made as little difficult by everyone with whom she comes in contact, no matter on what errand she may be bent. A clerk in a store will try to wait on her as quickly and as attentively as possible.  Acquaintances avoid stopping her with long conversations that could but torture and distress her.  She meets small kindnesses at every turn, which save unnecessary jars to sensitive nerves.

Reading this, it seems to me this would have been horribly isolating for a widow, everyone kindly hurrying her out of sight, away from anything that might distract her from her grief.  Being un-isolated was frowned on (just think of Scarlett O’Hara, in full widow’s weeds, shocking her circle by dancing at a fundraising ball). Being un-isolated was a slap in the face of your husband’s memory; friends might call and chat for half an hour, but unless you had to, you did not go out in the world.

A year and a day after the death, a widow could go into “half-mourning,” when she could wear mixed black and white (which suggests that the woman in the illustration above would be in half-mourning) for another six months.  After another six months the widow might begin to wear lighter, but still subdued, colors: dove gray, lavender, purple, or white (confusingly, this is sometimes also called half-mourning, or light-mourning).  Clothes were still kept simple, and while one’s jewelry was no longer restricted to a wedding ring and maybe a mourning brooch with a lock of the lost one’s hair in it, jewelry was kept simple too.

Widowers were expected to mourn for two years, just like widows–but, particularly when he had kids–a man was also expected to be looking for a new wife to help raise them.  There was no half-mourning period when going out looking for a wife was suddenly acceptable; the widower might have worn his mourning (black coat, black cravat, and a black arm-band) even while he was looking for a new wife.  After a time (he determined what that time was) he might have lightened his clothes a little, but continued to wear the arm-band.

Mourning wasn’t confined to husband or wife, of course.  Children were not expected to mourn so long for parents or siblings–a year at most–and parents were expected to mourn no more than a year for a child.  Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins–one brought out the black for all of them, but for a few months only.  In the case that someone outside the family died–a friend, or perhaps a Royal Personage–one would wear black to the funeral, and then a black arm-band or black gloves.

Perhaps keeping track of these rules was a comfort, or a distraction.  On the other hand, at a time when an illness could carry a child off in a day, women routinely died in childbirth, and there was a war going on across the Channel, death was a part of life, and one might go from bereavement to bereavement without getting out of mourning clothes or black gloves for years.

Researching all this, I was trying to think how an extended period of mourning would sit with the modern world.  We expect people to mourn for a little while, then snap out of it, or keep their feelings decently hidden.  Wearing mourning not only guaranteed some consideration, it signaled that you weren’t required to snap out of it just yet.  On the other hand, it sounds as if a widow of good family, with servants to handle the day-to-day work, a governess to see to her children, and no other work to fill her days, might have been a very lonely woman indeed.

About madeleinerobins

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