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Mourning Essay 2


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Mourning Essay 2

  1. 1. 1 Account of the Social Penetration of Mourning Dress in Victorian Britain The etiquette for mourning dress in nineteenth century Britain was highly regulated and there were many rigorous rules which had to be adhered to. Fashion was an extremely important influence on the appearance of mourning wear; it not only dictated what was correct with regard to materials and style but it was also an opportunity to visually express ones social position. Prior to the eighteen-hundreds mourning dress had originally been restricted to Court circles, however by the end of the eighteenth-century it began to trickle down the social ladder, permeating the middle-classes before finally reaching the very poorest levels of society by the time of Queen Victoria’s reign. As a person from any social background was permitted to wear mourning dress during the Victorian period, one would have thought that this might have caused the wealthy upper-classes to reduce their participation in the practice; in fact this was quite the contrary. Class divisions seemto have made the wealthier classes intensify their efforts in an attempt to ostentatiously demonstrate their superiority of rank. This resulted in the era’s mourning rituals being viewed with the belief that considerable display was prompted by class-consciousness rather than a desire to honour the departed. It is this notion that should be kept in mind when examining mourning dress.1 Victorian social hierarchy greatly changed throughout the century, society had to adjust to the emergence and proliferation of the middle-classes. There were many nouveau-riche families who had made their fortune from trade and industry. Due to their newly created wealth and capitalistic power it was common for the middle-class to push against the social barriers that prevented them from attainting social acknowledgement within high society.2 However many long established upper-class families were keen to keep such segregation in place. This was mostly in order to help maintain the separation of the aristocracy from those in trade. Recognition and presentation within Court was the sole desire for many socially ambitious families, although the Court’s ruling was explicit when denouncing the acceptance of anyone from or with trade associations. Despite being unable to move up the 1 Jen Cadwallader,“SpiritPhotography:Victorian MourningCulture”, Modern Language Studies 37: 2 (2008): 8- 31 2 Lou Taylor,Mourning Dress: A Costume and Social History (Abingdon: Routledge, 2009), 121
  2. 2. 2 social ladder, middle-class homes imitated the etiquettes and fashions of the aristocratic world as thoroughly as possible. The intention of this mirroring was in the hope of gaining some kind of elevated distinction within their social circles. Of course this is without doubt where mourning dress began to evolve into a significant Victorian social convention. Royal influence was of extreme importance in the social penetration of mourning wear. This was initially due to the death of Princess Charlotte during childbirth in 1817 which sent the country into a state of national mourning. Charlotte was a popular member of the Royal Family, the only child of King George IV and consequently the successor to the monarchy. On the 7th of November 1817 the Lord Chamberlain ordered official Court mourning for the Princess Royal, announcing that ‘ladies to wear black bombazine... long lawn hoods, gloves and crape fans’.3 After Charlotte’s death Ackerman’s Repository Arts (fig. 1) published a whole series of mourning dresses which were suitable for all occasions, as a society lady would have to entirely change her wardrobe due to such an important death. Therefore anyone who could have afforded such dresses would have gone into mourning because of the social principle rather than out of mere sorrow alone. Aside from King George IV’s death in 1830, national mourning really reached its climax in the second-half of the nineteenth-century as a result of Queen Victoria’s excessive anguish over the sudden death of Prince Albert (from typhoid) in 1861. Widowed at only forty-two years of age, Victoria wore mourning dress for the final forty years of her life, never again returning to wearing her prior colourful wardrobe. During the first years of her widowhood the Queen never made any public appearances, choosing instead to grieve privately basking in the memory of her deceased husband.4 Throughout the initial stages of mourning she was shrouded in black crape covered clothes, her face hidden behind a black veil and it was variations of this attire she wore for the rest of her days. By the end of her life Victoria wore 3 Ibid.128 4 Ibid.158 Fig. 1. 1818, Repository Arts, Series 2, Vol. 5
  3. 3. 3 Fig. 2. A photograph of Queen Victoria in mourning dress from 1873 deep violet dresses (the traditional colour of royal mourning) with a white widow’s cap and gauze veil instead of her original black one. In her final years, the Queen always donned a long white lace or net veil with her crown. It is usually this image that we associate with Queen Victoria as she was either photographed or painted in this attire right through the remainder of her reign (fig. 2). For the ladies of the Court this meant that they too were never able to come out of mourning as it was customary for them to follow the fashions of the monarch. Victoria’s example was also copied by the socially-conscious middle-class who despite being unable to be a part of high society, were still able to dress exactly as the Royals did. Lou Taylor argues that to the middle-classes Queen Victoria was ‘the ideal of virtuous Christian widowhood’.5 Therefore this ideology would have probably been the sole reason for the vast increase of women from all classes choosing to wear mourning dress. This was because the middle- class wanted to imitate the upper-class, whilst the labouring class saw that by emulating (in whatever way they could) similarities of their social-betters. This was also a way for them to try to elevate their status as well. However that is not to imply that mourning dress was just simply a vehicle for increasing ones social rank. Rather the primary function of mourning dress was to identify a mourner and by being a device to elicit the sympathy of the community for those most greatly affected by bereavement.6 This is why black is the colour for mourning as it is thought to be symbolic of deepest spiritual darkness which is representational of a mourner’s depressive state of mind. In fact the earliest records known of full black being used for mourning in Britain was when Edward III put his court into the colour on the death of John II of France in 1364.7 However to many in the Victorian period it was a normal convention that mourning 5 Ibid.122 6 Pat Jallard,Death in the Victorian Family (New York: Oxford University Press,1996),302 7 Phillis Cunnington, Costumes for Birth, Marriage and Death (London: A&C Black LTD, 1972), 241
  4. 4. 4 Fig. 3. A widow in the first stage of full mourning dress dated around 1860-1870 dress was to be accepted as a proper duty to remember and show respect for those that had passed away regardless of the clothing’s social implications that had arisen throughout the century. During 1850 to 1890 mourning dress had become such an important convention that very few dared defy it, however the custom did have its critics during the time. Charles Dickens ridiculed the etiquette by stating that it was ‘motivated by social convention’ and that it was more in ‘vanity than sorrow’.8 Mourning wear was such an essential part of a woman’s wardrobe that women in the upper-classes were especially never without it. This was because social ostracismcould happen in the absence of the correct dress and this was the dread of most Victorian ladies.9 Quite the opposite effect had resulted for men’s mourning dress in the nineteenth-century. It had lessened in intensity compared to the female etiquette; now male mourners were only distinguished by a black armband that was usually worn with a black suit and tie. For women the period to mourn was also a lot longer in comparison to men and it is thought that this difference is symbolic of the social position of women in the Victorian period. Women were obliged to behave in a manner showing a family’s respectability, wealth and sense of conformity. Amongst the respectable classes a female’s way of life was built on these goals, with this in mind mourning dress was definitely a perfect means for achieving these social aims.10 The heaviest burden for mourning fell onto widows, like Queen Victoria, who were expected to mourn for their deceased husbands for two and a half years. The figure of the widow embodied the mourning etiquette in its most extreme form: she was set apart socially in grief unable to attend social occasions and her life was put into a semi-eclipse with which she might never emerge.11 Widow’s weeds were regulated like a uniform, for 8 Pat Jallard,Death in the Victorian Family, 301 9 Lou Taylor,Mourning Dress, 122 10 Ibid.136 11 John Morley, Death, Heaven and the Victorians (London: Studio Vista,1971),68
  5. 5. 5 Fig. 4. Third stage mourning dated 1872-1874 (Metropolitan Museum of the Arts, New York) the first twelve months she was expected to wear a Parramatta dress, covered in crape within an inch of the waist. A black veil must also cover her face whilst all accessories were to be black and it was essential that nothing on a mourning dress must gleam (fig. 3). This was due to the ancient myth of Narcissus, where the soul was believed to be vulnerable to a reflected image.12 After a year and one day, a widow was permitted into the second stage of mourning. This differed from first mourning as less crape was required and the period lasted for a further nine months. Dullish black silk fabrics were also allowed. For those of the higher classes who followed every minor detail of mourning etiquette, after the first six months of second mourning one could add jet trimmings to their toilettes.13 After a period of twenty-one months, a widow could enter the third stage of mourning which meant crape was completely omitted and black silks with black ribbon embroidery were allowed (fig. 4). This lasted for a minimum of three months, although many widows never added colour to their wardrobe again. Finally after two years widows could go into half mourning which could last from six months through to a lifetime. This allowed women to revert back to wearing fashionable dresses that were in half mourning colours, which were usually in a range of soft mauves or greys (fig. 5).14 We can see that these complex rules and regulations meant that if a widow was to be mourning properly, it would cost a large sum of money. Obviously this was not what every Victorian female could afford. This indicates that although the practice had spread through the classes it was only the elite who could truly pay to go through the mourning process correctly. Another worry for women was making sure that their mourning wear was still in fashion or that even their normal clothes were en vogue once they came out of mourning. Mourning dresses could not be put away and used again at a later date because of this. Weeds were often sold off to newly widowed women who would in turn sell off their usual garments 12 Nigel Llewellyn, The Art of Death (London: Reaktion Books, 1991, 90 13 Lou Taylor, Mourning Dress, 142 14 Ibid.146
  6. 6. 6 Fig. 5. Half mourning dress dated 1889-1892 (Victoria and Albert Museum, London) which they could no longer wear. However some women would go as far as to reject fashionable mourning dress trends completely. This was probably because they viewed mourning as something which should be above superficial worries, such as whether a dress was in fashion or not. Without a doubt it was the poor who had the hardest struggle in being able to purchase and wear mourning attire. To them the social prestige gained from mourning clothes was extremely important; perhaps this was due to the difficulty of being able to finance and provide it at all.15 There was a sense of shame and failure when this could not be done. Although the vast increase in the demand for mourning dresses meant that there was a growth of ‘Burial and Friendly Societies’ that gave the option of being able to borrow a dress in order to perform the mourning ritual as dictated by the respectable parts of society.16 Even the less wealthy members of the middle-class would have found it trying at times to be seen in the latest mourning style. The rich ladies of Court were able to have their garments made up by private dressmakers, but such expensive couture extravagances would have been too costly to many. This meant that from the mid-nineteenth century, when demand was at its greatest, many shops and warehouses opened which specifically dealt with mourning clothing. Off the peg dresses were a lot cheaper in comparison to those tailored personally therefore making mourning attire much more accessible to people from all social spectrums then it ever was before. The largest and most well documented shop was Jay’s General Mourning Warehouse of Regent Street in London founded in 1841 (fig. 6).17 It supplied mourning clothes of every description and to serve every function, it even went as far as selling mourning bathing suits. This was a lucrative trade since repeat customers would be in vast numbers due to the Victorian belief that one would receive bad luck if they kept their mourning dress inside a house once the grieving process had been completed. Therefore people would come to 15 Ibid.154 16 Ibid.127 17 PhillisCunnington, Costumes for Births, Marriages and Deaths, 247
  7. 7. 7 Fig. 6. A newspaper advert for Jay’s General Mourning Warehouse buy completely new outfits all over again once their next loved one died, which would in turn keep the shop in a constant profitable cycle of business. One especially significant development that happened in the nineteenth-century, which helped with the penetration of mourning dresses throughout society, was the publication of fashion magazines.18 From the first half of the eighteen-hundreds such articles were printed in increasingly vast numbers which could come in monthly or bi-weekly editions. This had developed as a result of the production of ladies albums and pocket books that had proliferated towards the end of the eighteenth-century. Many of these Victorian magazines displayed fashion plates of the latest trends from Paris and they also had illustrations and advice on mourning wear. It was these magazines that set the standard for the way respectable Victorian housewives should go about conducting their lives. It was the strictures laid down about mourning in these texts that particularly helped fan the ritual throughout the middle- classes. This was most especially the case by the second half of the century. The top five ladies’ magazines of the period were: Queen, Gentlewoman, The Lady, Lady’s Pictorial and Ladies Year Book.19 These articles all differed in the advice they gave in regard to what was the correct length of time for the mourning over certain relatives. For the anxious reader who was conscious of making sure they followed the etiquette properly this was a most worrying problem. For example the Gentlewoman expressed that a daughter should mourn for her parents for a total of fifteen months whilst Queen advised that the process should only be for twelve. Likewise, Ladies Year Book wrote that six months was an acceptable period for a granddaughter to mourn over her grandparents even though The Lady preferred the more lengthy nine months. 20 If a mourner did not follow the etiquette 18 Lou Taylor, Mourning Dress, 123 19 Ibid.134 20 Ibid.134
  8. 8. 8 correctly they were liable to have their conduct misinterpreted which would have been frowned upon by judgemental Victorian society. Mourning had become such a dominant social convention by this point that bizarre and even more complex rules began to emerge. There were strange institutions of complimentary mourning which would imply that a second wife of a husband must mourn for the death of his first wife’s parents for at least three months or two months for the previous wife’s siblings.21 To mourn for even the most distant relations, whether through blood or marriage, was viewed in good taste and of course that is what many people wanted to be seen as. It is interesting to note that complimentary mourning was never applied to friends; instead mourning founded its rules firmly on the institution of the family, which was something that was at the very heart of all Victorian society. Due to the intricate and peculiar rules which mourning dress had developed by the end of the century the custom really did start to be viewed in a more negative light. This was because there was a feeling that the ritual had become too focused on pleasing social conventions rather than serving its true function of being a form of visual grieving for the deceased. A Mr Keith MacDonald wrote in 1874 that mourning dress had evolved into a ‘silly custom’ which ‘added to the embarrassment of mourners’.22 In 1875 the National Funeral and Mourning Reform Association was founded in a hope to put a stop to the practice which had become ‘intensified to a degree of unsanctioned scripture’.23 By 1889 it was widely regarded that mourning dress was neither good nor did the custom need general approval by social standards of the time. The last great demonstration of widespread mourning in the period was when Queen Victoria died in 1901 but even then the amount of mourning time had been reduced down to a year under the order of King Edward VII. It was after this that mourning dress went out of style in both a social and fashionable context. Overall it would be very difficult to assess what the true purpose of mourning dress was for the Victorians as such a custom is not present within twenty-first century society. This is because the evidence that survives mainly focuses on the formal requirements of mourning dress rather than people’s opinions of it at the time. Although from most primary articles 21 John Morley, Death, Heaven and the Victorians, 69 22 Pat Jallard, Death in the Victorian Family, 302 23 John Morley, Death, Heaven and the Victorians, 76
  9. 9. 9 written during the era it is very easy to see that there was a direct correlation between social status with regard to the function and style of mourning dress. Whether the ritual is viewed in a positive way or not we can conclude that factors such as an affluent middle- class, publication developments, the expansion of mourning retail and as Queen Victoria was seen type of mourning deity, were certainly all reasons that helped in the social penetration of mourning dress throughout the nineteenth-century. Word Count: 3085 Bibliography Buck, Anne. Victorian Costume and Costume Accessories. Undetermined, 1961. Cadwallader, Jen. “Spirit Photography: Victorian Mourning Culture”, Modern Language Studies 37:2 (2008): 8-31. Clarke, Suzi. Early Victorian Clothes. London: Corsham, 1989. Cunnington, Phillis. Costumes for Births, Marriages and Deaths. London: A&C Black Limited, 1972. Curl, James Stevens. The Victorian Celebration of Death. Stroud: Sutton, 2000. Jallard, Pat. Death in the Victorian Family. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Llewellyn, Nigel. The Art of Death. London: Reaktion Books, 1991. Litten, Julian. The English Way of Death: The Common Funeral since 1450. London: Robert Hale, 1991. Morley, John. Death, Heaven and the Victorians. London: Studio Vista, 1971. Scholar, Esther. Bearing the Dead: The British Culture of Mourning from the Enlightenment to Victoria. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994. Taylor, Lou. Mourning Dress: A Costume and Social History. Abingdon: Routledge, 2009.