Mourning: once an art and an industry

Mourning is typically a very personal and complicated process. We often confide in others and tell them we are grieving, but in many cases it can be hard to tell at first glance whether a person is in mourning. Apart from people wearing black during funerals and the use of black remembrance armbands by sports teams, very little remains of what was once an extensive set of customs: Victorian mourning etiquette.

Dress code

When Prince Albert passed away in December 1861, Queen Victoria secluded herself and went into a deep state of mourning. The Queen wore black for the remaining forty years of her life which signified her long-standing grief over her late husband. Queen Victoria’s example soon became a social norm across the English-speaking world; people expressed mourning by wearing black, and through other distinctive customs.

Victorian mourning clothes could be described as a family’s outward display of their inner feelings. Popular journals from the period outlined the “rules” of mourning, which were read by many people (mainly Victorian housewives.) Working class families and rural workers were less likely to follow these rules, but a significant portion of Victorian society adhered to mourning practices.

For deepest mourning, black clothes were worn to reflect darkness. Women’s dresses were trimmed with crape, a type of hard silk which was particularly associated with mourning since it did not pair well with any other clothing. The crape could be removed after a particular period of time, as dictated by mourning etiquette.  Cloth colours lightened as mourning went on, from black to grey, and eventually white, which was called half-mourning. Jewellery also had to be dark, and was sometimes intertwined with the hair of the deceased.

Beech family in mourning. The whole group are wearing dark clothes, and the males all have black armbands on. Back row (L-R): Mary Ethel, William John and Edward Charles. Front row:  Ellen Gupwell, C F, Martha Ann and Walter Stanley. (Archive reference 05.2014.0273)

Men wore dark suits with black gloves and accessories, including black armbands. These armbands had been worn to denote grief even before the Victorian period; there is a portrait of Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia, wearing a black armband in a portrait from 1614. Black armbands are still worn by sports teams to honour the memory of members, friends and family who have passed away. Mourning clothes were optional for children.

Black satin mourning dress, c. 1912 from the Ashburton Museum & Historical Society collection. (Object reference 01.1978.0244)

People were expected to mourn for a certain period of time, depending on circumstance. Widows mourned for two years, children who lost parents or vice versa mourned for a year, grandparents and siblings were mourned for six months, and the period of time got shorter as relatives become more distant.

One last photograph

Although the idea of taking a photograph of or with a deceased loved one might seem unusual to some people today, the practice of post-mortem photography was seen as entirely normal in the late 19th century Victorian society.

Through the act of having a deceased person photographed, and having photos taken with or around the dead subject, families simply sought to capture one last fond memory with the departed before they were interred. The subject would have their hair fixed, they would be dressed up and often have their eyes opened. Bodies were sometimes propped up into a standing position, but most often they were seated. Death photography was most common for children.

In many cultures, customs that involve spending time with the departed before burial can be important to the grieving process. They are a method through which families can demystify death and help themselves and others come to terms with their loss. Post-mortem photography was an example of such a practice that has faded in popularity but is still practiced in some cultures today.

Why did things change?

During the Victorian period just about everybody was familiar, and to an extent even comfortable, with the idea of death. Mourning was an industry. Nowadays, people are generally wary of anything out-of-the-ordinary when it comes to funerals, mourning and death. What happened?

Glass-plate image from Halma Studio, Ashburton. Two women wearing what appears to be mourning attire. (Archive reference 06.2018.0350)

The great losses endured by families and communities during the Great War rendered Christian mourning rituals and Victorian-style funeral arrangements redundant. Collective grief, combined with the massive number of soldiers buried overseas meant that the widespread mourning etiquette coined by Queen Victoria was no longer appropriate.

Mourning became impractical too; after all, how could women retire into seclusion for each relative lost when there were so many casualties during the war? The Illustrated London News commented in June 1918 that “there is not a single person who is not suffering family and financial losses that make display and frivolous expense seem like folly.” Women had filled the jobs men left behind to go to war, so there was no room for mourning when industry and commerce were being supported so heavily by women.

Although the rigid Victorian mourning expectations vanished, some things have stayed the same. We typically wear black to funerals, black armbands still have their place and there are other small holdovers from the Victorian period, such as flower arrangements at funerals.

By Connor Lysaght

Unless otherwise stated, photographs and research materials on this page are owned by the Ashburton Museum & Historical Society Inc. This post was modified for this blog and was originally published in the Ashburton Guardian, 5 February 2022.

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