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History of the Mourning Dress: Black Clothing Worn During Bereavement

The Social Significance of Black Clothing

For over 500 years, wearing black signified bereavement in Europe and America, as it was worn at funerals and for some time after the death of a loved one. Originally a custom for royalty and aristocracy who were experiencing grief, mourning dress eventually became a fashion statement worn by people who wished to imitate the elite.

Wearing black clothing has often taken on a social significance. During the Middle Ages, wealthy Spanish gentlemen wore black velvet to display status, as black dyes were expensive.

In the mid-20th century, beatniks in the United States wore black to separate themselves from the herd, as a sort of counterculture trademark. In the late 20th century certain groups of young people wore black to distinguish themselves as Goths.

Black clothing has long been associated with the clergy and asceticism.

And Johnny Cash called himself The Man in Black in which he claims to wear black for political and social reasons, for the poor, and people living troubled lives.

Margarita Teresa of Spain in mourning attire circa 1666.

Margarita Teresa of Spain in mourning attire circa 1666.

Mourning Dress for the Elite in the Middle Ages

During the Middle Ages, royalty and the aristocracy wore mourning dress during periods of bereavement. Mourning dress was regulated by sumptuary law and strict protocol was observed in the kind of clothing worn at funerals and following the death of people who occupied a high social status.

During the Middle Ages, funeral processions followed guidelines based on social hierarchy. While all wore black, the procession that followed the hearse included:

  • first the bereaved family,
  • then royalty and the aristocracy,
  • followed by clergy,
  • military,
  • then the merchant class.

Black coded clothing made it clear to observers "who was who" in a funeral procession. High-ranking mourners wore long trains and hoods made of expensive, dull shaded black wool with black or white crepe or linen trim.

Widows, in particular, wore mourning dress, called widow's weeds, complete with a veil when out in public for a long period of time after the death of their husbands.

In times of national mourning following the death of a sovereign, important figures wore black for specific time periods to formal events, in public, and in the company of royalty.

Mourning dress was limited to people of the highest social strata. Sumptuary laws established rules for dress, and the practice of wearing black during bereavement was not followed by the lower classes until much later. Constraints against the wearing of black mourning attire were thought to prevent people from aping their betters. In any event, the expense of black dye prevented the common people from wearing black mourning dress.

As the Western European economy created new wealth for the merchant class, the ability to afford expensive fabric and fashion were no longer limited to the aristocracy.

The wealthy European merchant class hoped to copy the aristocracy in matters of dress and fashion, including the custom of mourning dress. The new moneyed class began to defy tradition as they attempted to incorporate aristocratic etiquette into their own lives. The desire to follow the fashions of the elite encouraged them to pay fines for breaking sumptuary laws and dress like the elite.

Mourning dress for the rich was fashionable for men and women alike with finely made fabrics and handsome clothing styles.

Queen Victoria and children in mourning dress.

Queen Victoria and children in mourning dress.

Mourning Dress in the Victorian Age

The Industrial Revolution affected the practice of wearing mourning dress, creating new rules of fashion that extended beyond the aristocracy. Technological advances created a new, growing middle class. Improved manufacturing techniques enabled the mass production of dull black fabrics, crepe, and mourning jewelry.

By the mid-19th century, the wearing of appropriate mourning dress was a sign of respectability.

Queen Victoria had a huge influence on the fashions of the mid-to-late-1800s. After the death of her husband, Prince Albert in 1861, Queen Victoria wore black clothing until her own death in 1901.

During Victorian times, the type of mourning dress and the length of time one wore it was circumscribed by etiquette instead of sumptuary laws. A widow wore mourning dress for two and a half years.

Full mourning lasted a full year and consisted of clothing made of dull black fabrics without embellishment or jewelry. A woman in full mourning wore a veil to cover her face when she left the house. She avoided balls and frivolous events during that time.

After a year had passed, the widow added small trimmings and simple jewelry. Later, that second year, the widow, now in half-mourning, added some color. Gray, mauve, and duller shades of purple and violet were suitable at that time.

Mourning jewelry—-a jet brooch.

Mourning jewelry—-a jet brooch.

Mourning Jewelry

The jewelry worn by Victorian widows came in black, with jet being the most popular stone. Jet stones set in brooches, earrings, and rings could be quite beautiful. Gutta percha, a natural latex similar to plastic, made out of the sap of an East Asian tree, provided an inexpensive substitute for jet.

Jewelry made from the hair of the deceased loved one was a popular ornamentation. A hank of hair was woven into a handsome knot and made into a brooch or other piece of jewelry. While such jewelry may seem morbid today, the fashion was seen in the Victorian era as romantic and sentimental, a way to keep in touch with a dead loved one.

Earlier, in the 16th and 17th centuries, memento mori jewelry featured images like skulls and coffins crafted in gold and black enamel brooches, rings, and lockets.

As hair does not decompose like the rest of the body, these unusual ornaments made of human hair are long-lasting and highly collectible today.

Victorian Mourning Dress and the Commercialization of Grief

The increased manufacturing technology of the Victorian age created a vast market for mourning dress. Dresses made of crepe came in many styles for the different mourning periods. Advertisements hawked mourning bodices, skirts, capes, veils, black bonnets, black indoor caps, gloves, fans, and black-edged handkerchiefs.

Women's magazines offered advice on mourning etiquette for all types of bereavement. In 1881, Sylvia's Home Journal suggested that mothers wear black crepe for 6 weeks following the death of the mother-in-law or father-in-law of her married children.

Special trimmings and time periods were suggested for cousins, aunts, uncles, and other relatives.

Royalty traveled with complete sets of mourning dress, just in case.

The practice of mourning dress bled down to the lower middle class who could afford second-hand or simple, inexpensive black clothing. People without a lot of money often had regular clothing dyed black in order to save money.

By 1900, the growth of the ready-to-wear garment industry led to the wearing of mourning dress by better-off members of the working class.

Victorian ad for mourning clothes.

Victorian ad for mourning clothes.

The Death of Mourning Dress

By the 1920s, the practice of wearing mourning dress began to subside. However, heavily Catholic countries still adhered to the practice, as did folks of the older generation.

Well into the 20th century, men often wore black armbands; and black clothing was often worn at funerals.

The custom of mourning dress impacted the garment industry in several ways. One could not wait for mourning dress but needed a quick delivery. (One could hardly wear out-of-date mourning clothes!) The need for rapid delivery created a new system of efficiency and speed in the clothing trade, helped establish department stores, and increased demand for the wholesale manufacture of women's clothing.

Today, few people in Western developed urban areas wear black clothing during bereavement, though black is often worn at funerals. But wearing mourning dress did offer a kind of protection for the bereaved. Other people understood at a glance that a widow was in grief. Expectations and demands were lowered, a quiet kind of sympathy offered, and even strangers could see that a person was not at their best, having suffered a terrible loss.

Books consulted:

Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion, edited by Valerie Steele; Scribner Library

Daily Life in Victorian England by Sally Mitchell; Greenwood Press

Encyclopedia of the Renaissance; Scribners

Questions & Answers

Question: What are sumptuary laws?

Answer: Sumptuary laws were put in place to regulate what people wore in an effort to reduce the consumption of luxury goods. There was a fear among the elite that the rising wealth of the middle class would encourage people to mimic the clothing styles of the nobility, eroding the social position of the elite. Also, there was a concern that the importation of luxury goods would hurt local trade. Sumptuary laws dictated the types of fabrics that could be used in clothing construction, style, color, and trim.

The laws could be quite complicated and were often ignored.

Question: I found a set of black lace items I think were for mourning clothing in an old trunk. One piece is a long skirt with a very small waist and a small top in the black lace. I also found a very large lace head covering. We live close to Virginia City Nevada. Do you know if they wore black lace for mourning?

Answer: Black was worn for mourning but that does not mean that all black clothing was worn for mourning. Usually, mourning clothing was sedated and an entire outfit made of lace does not sound like mourning attire.

The black lace head covering sounds like a mantilla which is a lace veil that comes down to the shoulders. In Spanish cultures, young girls wore white mantillas while married women wore black. Mantillas were popular head coverings worn for church in the United States during the 1960s and 70s and not limited to Spanish cultures.

If you are trying to learn about those garments, try to find out what kind of material it is made from - what kind of lace is it? In the past, lace was made of linen, silk, later cotton. Manufactured lace can be made of synthetic fibers. So the material can give you a clue. If it is synthetic than it was made after 1935. The style can give you a clue as well. Look at the length and width. Very wide skirts were popular in the mid-1800s and again in the mid-1900s. Tiny waists and wide, ornate slips were all the rage from between 1947 - 1963.

For help with understanding the old clothing you found, contact Virginia City's The Way it Was Museum or the Nevada Historical Society in Reno.

Question: Historically, what did children wear for mourning?

Answer: You can find several images of children dressed in mourning attire online. Some wore black arm bands. After the death of a young girl, other young girls sometimes wore white with black decorative ribbons. One photo shows the family of Queen Victoria after the death of Princess Marie in 1879. Marie's siblings are dressed in black. Queen Victoria chastised her daughter, Vicky, for not dressing her infant in mourning after the death of Prince Albert.

Question: Can you wear white to a funeral ?

Answer: Dark colors are traditional funeral attire in the Western world. People also wear gray, muted, or neutral colors. White is often paired with darker colors as in wearing a white shirt or blouse with a suit.

White is the traditional funeral attire in many areas of East Asia. Buddhists and Hindus wear white for funerals.

I am a big believer in following the traditions of the people that you mix with, especially for a formal occasion like a funeral. There is an old adage that goes "when in Rome do as the Romans do, sensible and polite advise. If you attend a Western funeral where everyone is dressed in somber colors, a white outfit will make you stand out, drawing attention to yourself. You do not want to draw attention to yourself at such an event.

Question: I purchased a black mourning dresses and some chantilly lace at a clothing auction years ago, are they worth anything now?

Answer: The value of your antique mourning dress, as well as the lace, depends on age, condition, and demand. Learn as much as you can about each dress, including approximate age within 10 years and construction materials (which can help to judge age), A high-quality garment which fetches more money than a low-quality item.

For quality look for workmanship, bound seams, high-quality fabric, and the presence of silk lining.

Details and embellishments like embroidery, plisse pleats, or intricate construction can make a garment more valuable.

Holes, stains, and odors will detract from value.

Once you learn more about each garment, keep an eye on sales or auction sites for similar products. Look at Etsy, eBay, ruby lane, and Collector's Weekly. Make sure the garment you view is actually old and not a reproduction, though high-quality reproductions can be quite expensive. Look for antique clothing shows in your area. They are popular in January and February. Check out the Vintage Fashion Guild online for resources. Also, browse local shops that sell vintage or antique clothing.

Old garments should only be cleaned by a professional. Do not store in an area with excessive heat or humidity. Do not store in plastic. Wrap in unbleached muslin and refold every few months to avoid fold marks. Use lavender or mothballs to deter pests but do not let the mothballs or lavender actually touch the clothing. Store in acid-free or archival boxes.

© 2011 Dolores Monet


Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on December 22, 2019:

In Western cultures people generally wear subdued clothing to funerals. While it is no longer necessary to wear all black, bright colors or revealing clothing is viewed as improper. The focus of a funeral is to remember the person that died and to support the family and close friends of the deceased. Wearing red calls attention to yourself and reflects a feeling of celebration.

Proper garments would include neutral colors, dark blue or dark green, subtle florals or neutral prints. Bright yellow, orange, red, or loud floral prints may be bit too much.

Rewolf71 on December 21, 2019:

I remember someone wearing red at a funeral being something risque' and also for weddings. What is the reason and history of this?

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on November 18, 2019:

Hi Ms, Lou - not long ago the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia showed "Woven Strands," an exhibit that featured hair work used in mourning pieces that included wreaths, bracelets, watch fobs, and brooches made with human hair. Hair was also used in framed images that included hair of the deceased, sometimes in the form of a willow tree, or woven embellishments surrounding a portrait. Thanks for reading!

Ms Lou Carver, History to You on November 09, 2019:

I have seen landscapes and intricate mathematical wall hangings made of hair. There was a book that gave instruction on how to braid hundreds of patterns with hair. And a town in the East that employed people to braid.

Dolores Monet (author) from East Coast, United States on December 07, 2015:

limpet - sadly, I have noticed this myself. As I mentioned in an earlier comment, I watched on TV as people showed up for President Reagan's funeral (the general public) turned up in sweatshirts. Telling a humorous story is one thing; dressing in sweats quite another. Though traditional mourning dress is a thing of the past, dressing appropriately for such an occasion should never go out of style. Thanks for your input.

Ian Stuart Robertson from London England on December 03, 2015:

I have observed at recent burials how there seems to be a decline in the decorum being observed on these solemn occasions. Having attended the traditional as well as military funerals i am impressed by the quiet dignity of those in attendance. However now it seems a 'come as you are' is acceptable interspersed with humorous anecdotes is okay, if thats the way the deceased would have wanted it!