Mourning Customs

Sunflower here, looking up mourning customs.

Morbid, huh?

The family in my WIP are in mourning because their wife and mother has died before the start of the story. However, my character Miles being himself, he chose not to have black mourning dresses made for his young daughters. As a man, all he needs for mourning wear is a black armband and black gloves.

I’ve had to go back and look up specific points of mourning customs because I have a character who is a widow and she grows in importance from page 150 onwards, so I want to be sure that I get the mourning aspect of her character correct.

The most recognizable example of archaic mourning is Queen Victoria, who wore black for forty years after the death of Prince Albert.

Queen Victoria and three of her daughters in mourning dress.

In the Victorian era, mourning customs were complex and strict; much more stringent than they had been in the early nineteenth century, when my story takes place.

Ladies’ Mourning

A woman was expected to wear black bombazine (a type of wool blend) and crepe (a light silk) while mourning, with black gloves, veils, and minimal jewelry like plain jet crosses: nothing fancy, nothing shiny. She could not socialize during this time, except perhaps for church. Some debutantes delayed their first social Seasons due to mourning considerations. If a woman was still in widow’s weeds and danced, was seen laughing, or spending time in an unrelated man’s company before her year and a day was up, her reputation would suffer.

Remember that scene in Gone With The Wind during the fundraiser when Scarlett dances with Rhett, causing a scandal and a censorious letter from her mother, because she’s dancing with a man while still wearing mourning black? The mourning customs of the 1860s (which is when Victoria isolated herself and single-handedly kept the crepe-making industry going) were why that incident was a big deal.

A poor person would often take apart their daily wear, throw them into a vat of black dye, and go about their mourning time that way. A middle-class or richer person could afford to have new mourning clothes made.
Mary, Sybil and Edith in Edwardian-style mourning. Not as elaborate as Victorian mourning. 

Here’s a link to various Edwardian mourning gowns.

Men and Mourning

Men simply wore a black armband and black gloves; depending on the man or who he was mourning, he might choose to wear black or not. Unlike the women, however, men were not expected to wear all black or shut themselves away from society while in mourning. He was allowed to marry before his year of mourning (if he was mourning his dead wife) was up as well. A woman could remarry after her year and a day was over, but even that was considered too soon.

Degrees of Mourning
Degrees of mourning time existed. For a spouse, mourning was a year. Six months for a parent or parent-in-law. 3 months for a sibling, aunt or uncle. 3 weeks for a first cousin. I have read that mourning times could be longer during the Victorian era. When you consider that the queen remained in perpetual mourning dress, perhaps the increase of a widow’s time in black from a year to two years or more is not so surprising.

In episode one of Downton Abbey, Mary is concerned that she’ll have to mourn Patrick as a fiance rather than a cousin. Wearing mourning for a fiance probably involved a longer time than mourning a cousin, though by the Edwardian era, mourning was not such a production as it once had been. If she had to be in mourning for a longer period of time, Mary would have had to miss out on social engagements and it would have delayed her chances to meet a man she could marry.

Most of these mourning customs are for people of the upper classes. When William’s mother died on Downton Abbey, he simply wore a black armband to signify her loss.

Regency era mourning.

After a year of wearing black, a widow could go into half-mourning. She could wear a mix of black and white, gray, and lilac. I’ve read variants of the half-mourning rule: at six months, they could go into half-mourning, or after a year or after two years.

I have my widow, Mrs. Braddock, going into half-mourning after a year. Now that she can socialize with the world again, she’s throwing herself into it.

Here is an example of half-mourning from the early nineteenth century:

Updated to add
Queen Victoria’s mourning outfit

Regency Mourning Customs
Candice Hern–Death and Mourning
Dressing For Mourning in the Regency

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