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Sunday, March 17, 2013

How Victorians wore Black

As a general geek for fashion and history, I can honestly say that few things annoy the holy fuck out of me quite as much as seeing a photograph of a Victorian woman wearing black mislabeled as being in mourning.

 Mourning, like any social institution, had its ideals.  Ideally, a mourning dress was supposed to be all black, made of a lusterless fabric (usually a puckered silk fabric called crape), and with as little ruffles and decorations as possible.  However, this is not always the case.  It is often very difficult to tell whether or not a dress is a mourning dress or just a modest black dress simply because mourning wear varied so much, usually depending on things like the income level, age, and personality of the woman in mourning.  Basically, going into mourning meant entirely replacing your wardrobe, so often lower-class women would simply dye their existing dresses black.  Wealthy women, on the other hand, could not only buy an extensive new wardrobe, but they could also buy elaborately decorated mourning wear with extensive ruffles and beading.  On top of this, mourning was done in three stages.  First, full or deep mourning, could last from one to three years, and it involved wearifn the heaviest, least ornamented black crape with a floor-length weeping veil worn over the face, and deep seclusion that limited a woman’s social life to basically jsut church services.  Second mourning had a shortened veil that could be taken off the face, as well as some ornamentation.  Half-mourning allowed color again, but they were limited to pale purples and greys, and jewelry could be worn again.  Black was still a fashionable color to wear and was regularly worn outside of mourning, as well as the colors of half-mourning.  So how can you tell whether or not a woman is in mourning?  The best giveaway would be simply with how a dress is accessorized.

 In these two illustrations from an 1855 fashion magazine, the first woman isn’t in mourning, and this is denoted by her brightly-colored bonnet, bright jewelry, and white gloves.  The second woman is clearly in mourning as she wears the telltale widow’s veil, black shawl, and black gloves.  The thick, almost opaque floor-length veil is the true calling card of mourning, as seen in these photographs.  All of a woman’s accessories would be made for mourning: her parasols, her purse, even her handkerchief.  Taking from Queen Victoria’s example, older widows often remained in second mourning or half-mourning for the rest of their lives. So this makes identifying mourning even more difficult, and it usually cannot be done without express documentation.

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