Mourning Becomes Her
Because I’m going to a funeral at the end of this week, I thought I’d take a look at the nineteenth century’s special affection for mourning dress. Black mourning survived over the centuries in various forms. It took the mid-nineteenth century, however, to give the fashion for mourning an added fillip. The Victorian era is awash with ornaments and details affiliated with mourning, from jet and onyx jewelry to lacy veils and black tippets. Women, of course, carried the particular burden of grief. Their physical appearance was rendered according to the dictates of society: deepest black for a full year when glossy materials were forbidden, like furs, velvet and satin, and then permission to go to half-mourning, to add dull colors—like lavender or gray—before a slow return to original dress. Widows were encouraged in the dowager look, aided by that most familiar of examples perched on the English throne. Black lent dignity to the rituals of grief. Yet, did it ever cross a woman’s mind, that her mourning dress isolated her further? That, here, through the vagaries of fashion, was a western way to emulate the Hindu practice of suttee? By the mid-1870s, there were groups speaking out against the extremes of mourning wear for women. The adoption of morning clothes put an economic squeeze on poor and lower middle class families. However, the social regulations governing mourning dress didn’t really begin to relax until the 1890s. Many critics of the era consider that mourning dress was a form of conspicuous consumption, symbolic of the pervasive atmosphere of gentility and conformity. Do you agree?