Sunday, 7 December 2014

The Mourning Dress

During the Victorian period and also today, it is an essential duty for families to carry out rituals when a death in the family occurs. As part of these rituals, black mourning dresses were worn to indicate feelings of loss, as well as giving respect towards the dead. The most popular materials which were used during the process of designing the dresses were bombazine and crepe. Bombazine is a type of wool which came from a breed of sheep in Turkey, and crepe, which is a hard, and crimpled textile, that is difficult to combine with other fabrics. During my visit at the Victoria and Albert Museum, there was small parts of materials which were cut out, including crepe, which allowed me to to feel the rough texture of it. I also saw a black mourning dress, which looked like quite an uncomfortable form of clothing to be worn every day for up to two years for some women. My visit at the Victoria and Albert museum enabled me to grasp a better idea of what it was actually like to wear one, as well as getting me to think about the tough lives that women had to face, when losing a loved one. The main colour for mourning dresses was black, which signifies absence and misery and was compulsory to wear in the Victorian era. These mourning dresses were proven costly as they came in a variety of different styles and became a fashion statement in the Victorian society. This gave the Victorians a chance to show off their class and social status. I will discuss the impact of the mourning dress in the Victorian society and its presence in the novels North and South, and Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell, whilst comparing Victorian funeral attire with the 21st century funeral wear. 

Figure 1: A sample of crepe

Figure 2: Mourning dress at the Victoria and Albert Museum
There were different types of clothing that the Victorians had to wear depending on the death. To help them decide on what they had to wear, magazines and books guided the Victorians when it came to a family death. There was also a place in Regent Street, London called ‘Jay’s Mourning Warehouse’ which was a store that specifically made clothes for mourning. The presence of mourning books, magazines and stores, emphasises the fact that mourning wear was almost like a trend, and played a significant part in the lives of Victorians.

Figure 3: Advertisement for Jay’s Mourning Warehouse
In Gaskell’s novel North and South, Margaret is described as wearing a “black silk dress which she was wearing as mourning for some distant relative of her fathers” (1). The fact that Margaret wears a silk dress informs the reader that as the death was a distant relative, she was able to wear a dress that wasn’t completely made from crepe, but she still shows respect and bereavement of her father’s relative.  The material silk is sultry and luxurious which contrasts with the conventional and plain mourning dress, that widowers had to wear. This demonstrates the difference in mourning attire, and the clothing restrictions of widowers. The different styles for particular mourning stages portray unfairness as women had to dress in a certain way, in order to be accepted by society by following these rules. Jewellery was also equally restricted, and there was also separate jewellery made especially for mourning. Gaskell also introduces the reader to the three stages of mourning:

  1. Full mourning, was one year and one day, where women had to wear dull black clothing without any ornaments.  
  2. Second mourning, a period of nine months, women were permitted to wear a small amount mourning jewellery and could have minor details such as trims on the edges of their dress. They also had to wear a veil, covering the back of the head.
  3. Half mourning persisted from three to six months and was epitomised by more decorative fabrics such as silk.

In Gaskells other novel Cranford, there are also references to mourning dresses “She put off her mourning dress, and came in, looking pale and gentle” (Chapter 2). This shows readers that mourning dresses were popular amongst the Victorian period and was an important aspect of Victorian culture as there was a particular type of clothing called the ‘mourning’ dress which people abided to.

“Soon after Miss Mary Hoggins married Mr Fitz-Adam, she disappeared from the neighbourhood for many years. She did not move in a sphere in Cranford society sufficiently high to make any of us care to know what Mr Fitz-Adam was. He died and was gathered to his fathers without our ever having thought about him at all. And then Mrs Fitz-Adam reappeared in Cranford ("as bold as a lion," Miss Pole said), a well-to-do widow, dressed in rustling black silk, so soon after her husband's death that poor Miss Jenkyns was justified in the remark she made, that "bombazine would have shown a deeper sense of her loss."” (7)

This passage suggests that what a woman wore after her husband’s death was heavily noticed by society as they made assumptions and judgments based on how you dressed after a close death. the fact that Mrs Fitz-Adam was dressed in silk despite her husband's death which was fairly recent, made the Victorian society judge her, and feel as though she is being disrespectful to the Victorian culture. However, Mrs Fitz-Adam is seen as a rebellious and confident character, as she dressed in ‘rustling black silk’ despite the recent event of her husband’s death. The significance of Mrs Fitz-Adam's character informs the readers that Victorian women didn't want to suffer, and feel even more depressed by staying in mourning. It also shows that women, who wore something untraditional, were made to feel alienated and looked down upon by society.

Many members from the royal family followed the tradition of the black mourning ensemble. The mourning dress started to gain popularity since Queen Victoria (1819-1901) set the standard by wearing one after her husband Prince Albert’s death in 1861, till the end of her reign, which was thirty three years! Queen Victoria wore a full length, black silk gown which featured a simple crape lining on the sleeves and a relaxed bodice fit. Since the late 1800’s and after Queen Victoria wore her mourning dress for thirty three years, the mourning dress became less traditional and more of a fashion statement.
Figure 4: Queen Victoria in her mourning dress.

Comparing mourning dresses from the 1800’s to today, there is a definite change in the traditional 
funeral wear, as they are becoming increasingly modern and stylistic. Celebrities and style icons
such as Kate Moss, and Rihanna display their mourning outfits reflecting 21st century style and personality, but still emotion as they both stick to the dark colour theme. Society today still follow the tradition and wear black, or dark colours to a funeral, but with a modern twist, which shows that as time passes, fashion and ways of thinking continue to evolve.

Figure 5: Kate Moss attending designer Alexander McQueen’s funeral in 2010. Wearing a black dress, fur stole and patent black Louboutin heels, Kate Moss makes this type of mourning outfit classy and modern, but yet still traditional as all the components of the outfit are black.  
Figure 6: Rihanna heading to her Grandmother Clara’s funeral in 2012. She is wearing a navy blue 
Givenchy dress, with minimal jewellery and champagne coloured heels.Yet again another example of a modern twist to the conventional rules of mourning wear from the Victorian period. Rihanna breaks the traditional boundaries of wearing an all-black ensemble, making funeral clothing more fashionable, yet still acceptable to wear. 

Gaskell, Elizabeth. Cranford. United Kingdom: Penguin Classics, 2005. Print.

Gaskell, Elizabeth. North and South. United Kingdom: Oxford World's Classics, 2008. Print.


Figure 1: Taken by me from a digital camera.

Figure 2: Taken by me from a digital camera.

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