Friday, November 11, 2011

Mourning Dress

The August, 1891 Ladies Home Journal published this advice about mourning dress:

"Widow's, which is the deepest of all mourning, consists of a plain gown of Henrietta cloth or bombazine, with crape upon it or not ... the length of the veil differs, of course, according to one's height, but the real widow's veil should reach to the edge of the skirt, back and front,
and be finished by a hem a quarter of a yard wide. This is worn so that the whole figure is shrouded for three months; after that it is s thrown back, and at the end of another three months, a single veil, reaching to the waist, is worn. This may be worn for six months, and crape then be laid aside."

Since the veil in the photo on the right has been "thrown back," we can assume that this young widow's husband died over three months ago.

Prior to the Civil War, the widow's first year mourning attire consisted of black silk, with undersleeves and collar of black crepe, black crepe trimming, and black jet jewelry. The second mourning, after the first year, would have allowed white trim. As the 19th century wore on, customs required longer periods of mourning and "the rules" became more carefully defined. It was difficult for those who were less wealthy to keep all the rules. They could purchase ready-made mourning costumes from "mourning warehouses," and sometimes resorted to dyeing clothing they already owned black in order to follow the customs. Half mourning after 1860 allowed for women to wear soft mauve, violet, pansy, and lilac.

The ladies who read the 19th century article titled "Mourning and Funeral Usages" posted here:
would have shunned me. After all, when my husband died in 2001, I wore red to his funeral. Red. Horrors! Well ... his long cancer battle was over ... he'd graduated to heaven ... and ... it seemed right at the time.

Last week Nancy showed us how the photography profession was affected by the mourning industry. When we realize that over half a million men lost their lives in the Civil War ... when we think that a man's wife, mother, and children all went into deep mourning, we can also imagine the demands put on the textile industry. Just think what it was like on the streets of every city and town in America. Just think of all that black silk.

The textile industry responded to mourning customs with more than silk and crepe. Cotton mills began to produce specific prints known today as "mourning prints." In her book Clues in the Calico, textile historian Barbara Brackman writes, "the 1902 Sears catalog offered mourning prints 'at 5 1/2 cents per yard. Very Best Quality of Mourning Prints. These prints are very swell, and are worn by ladies or misses, are neat and will wash without fading."

While I wore red ... as the months went on and I was still in mourning, I realized that, while the Victorians may have taken it to the point of excess, there is something to be said for a public display that says, "I've lost someone dear to me ... please be kind."
I hope ever single widow pictured here is rejoicing in heaven even as we feel sad for them more than a century later.

May you know the reality of God's promise to turn out mourning into dancing .....Stephanie


  1. Well, neither of my links work. Here's the address for the article I mention:

  2. And here is the correct photo site. Sorry for the techno-hiccup. It's sort of my style. Ahem.

  3. Very interesting post, Stephanie. I'd not heard of the custom of the long veils. Isn't it interesting what society dictated? When did the custom of wearing mourning attire fade into oblivion? I'd suspect those customs became less important as settlers went west, but maybe I'm mistaken about that.
    Jan in Nebraska

  4. I wondered the same thing, Jan. What I've read thus far seems to indicate that things changed with the turn of the century. Queen Victoria died in 1901 which was definitely the "end of an era" in England. The turn of the century also changed things in the U.S. One writer suggested that the death toll of the Civil War here just eventually wore people out and made them restive under the restrictions of "full mourning, half mourning," etc. I am inclined to think you are right about women in the west and their observances. You have given me something new to try to learn. When I wrote the Keepsake Legacies series, I could not seem to find good documentation for what widows wore when in Nebraska in the late 1800s. It was very frustrating. Back to the search!

  5. Neat post. I've often wondered, too, when the mourning customs of the day went out of practice. Wasn't one of the reasons it was so adhered to because Queen Victoria was in deep mourning for Albert for the rest of her life?

  6. I was reading a book by Catherine Coulter were is has a young girl mourning for her grandfather and it mentioned the gown. I am glad I found this site. Now I can see what kind of gown she was wearing. Thanks. Kathy Harrison