How to Dress Becomingly in Victorian Mourning

The following appeared in Arthur’s Home Magazine published in 1885 in Philadelphia



By Ella Rodman Church.

BLACK has been so generally worn for a long time past that it is not always easy to distinguish between those who are in mourning and those who are not. It is an economical dress, and imparts an air of refinement where it would otherwise be lacking. A lady who was dependent on her own exertions for support, and who felt painfully conscious of a lack of taste in dress, as well as of scanty means, once said that she had seriously thought of going gradually into a suit of mourning, because it was such a lady-like dress and such a safe retreat for those who hadn’t much to spend.

It seems hard and worldly enough that fashion should prescribe the cut and style of garments supposed to be worn as an expression of grief; but mourning habiliments are of themselves a blind obedience to fashion, and are sometimes worn only “because people will talk” if no change is made. To the real mourner they are a protection, because they shield her from much that would otherwise be very trying; and for this reason alone the custom is likely to endure.

Parisian regulations on the subject of mourning are as follows:

The deepest mourning is that worn by a widow for her husband; it is worn for two years, sometimes longer. It consists, for the first year, of solid black woolen goods—collar and cuffs of folded untrimmed crape—a simple crape bonnet and a long black crape veil. The second year, silk trimmed with crape—black lace collars and cuff’s and a shorter veil may be worn; and in the last six months, gray, violet, and white are permitted.

The mourning for a father or mother is worn for one year. The first six months, the proper dress is of solid black woolen goods, trimmed with crape, black crape .bonnet, black crape veil, collar and cuff’s of black crape; three months, of black silk with crape trimming—white or black lace collar and cuff;—veil of tulle, and white bonnet facings ; and the last three months, in gray, purple, and violet.

Mourning worn for a child is the same as that worn for a parent.

Mourning for a grandparent is worn for six months; three months, black woolen goods—white collar and cuffs—short crape veil, and bonnet of crape trimmed with black silk or ribbon; six weeks in black silk trimmed with crape, lace collar and cuffs, short tulle veil, and six weeks in gray, purple, and violet.

Mourning for a brother or sister is worn six months; two months in solid black trimmed with crape—white linen collar and cuffs—bonnet of black crape, with white facing and black strings; two months, in black silk, with white lace collar and cuff’s, and two months in gray, purple, white, and violet.

Mourning for an uncle or aunt is worn for three months, and is the second mourning named above—tulle, white linen, and white bonnet facings being worn at once.

All this, with more to the same purpose, is extremely French, and the gradual shading off of the “light mourning” does not prevail much here—black and gray especially being so much in general use that they are no longer regarded in the light of mourning. There is something very unnatural in the idea of shading off’ into degrees of grief according to the rules set and ordered, and yet a sudden transition from deep mourning to colors is both startling and unseemly. Thus, a lady who suddenly appeared at a boardinghouse table in a head dress with bright blue ribbons, surmounting a dress of bombazine trimmed with crape, produced a very disagreeable impression, and became the subject of most unflattering remarks.

Handsome mourning is always a stylish dress, that is becoming to all except the very dark and sallow. Persons of this complexion should never wear black collars, nor let black come into immediate contact with the face. A narrow edge of crepe lisse, or fine tarlatan, is allowable even in deep mourning, and this finish gives a clearer, brighter look to heavy folds of sombre black.

Crape is an expensive trimming; costly sit the first, if of good quality—and a poor one is not worth buying—and easily spoilt by dust and damp; many, therefore, who put on mourning do not feel that they can afford it, except in the shape of bonnet and veil. There is no other fabric, however, that belongs so exclusively to mourning, and the handsomest and most suitable of such dresses is one of fine woolen goods—it may be bombazine, Henrietta cloth, or serge— covered three-quarters of the way up the skirt with crape laid on perfectly plain; the plain waist, or basque, almost if not quite covered, and the sleeves with very deep crape cuffs. Such a dress costs as much as a handsome silk; but with care it will last for some time, and there is an appearance of quiet elegance about it that gives an air of distinction to the wearer.

A severe plainness, that is utterly antagonistic to the wearing of superfluous trimming and all kinds of shining and dangling things, should characterize deep mourning; and straight lines and long folds are more suitable than puffed drapery. Smooth bias folds or tucks take the place of flounces and plaitings, simplicity and a perfect fit, as every wrinkle shows in such a dress, being the effect aimed at.

Complimentary or slight mourning can be made extremely becoming, especially in summer dresses; and almost any one looks well in white organdy or India muslin, trimmed with rosettes of crape or loops of narrow gros-grain ribbon. China crape, plain, brocaded, or embroidered, is a handsome, dressy material; and so is black grenadine trimmed with black lace. A plain black dress is brightened up by turning it in at the neck over a chemisette of pulled or gathered black tulle or white net.

When expense is not much considered, a surprising variety of pretty costumes may be devised under the head of half-mourning; all the dressy black toilets worn by people in colors are pressed into service, and just enough of the true character is retained to make the wearer ” interesting.” As I a lady once remarked of a fashionable young wife I at a watering-place, “She had no idea that any one could dress so much in mourning.”

3 Replies to “How to Dress Becomingly in Victorian Mourning”

  1. Ah, the hypocrisy of it. Also, I think that the Parisian violet has led to the belief that English mourning included lavender. Regency mourning illustrations have black, white and gray. Court mourning also includes those colors. However scarlet capes were worn while every one was in mourning for Princess Amelia. That one requires more research.

  2. It’s all so confusing. That’s why I love the bit above about women just wearing black year round.

  3. In some places, a widow puts on black and never takes it off.
    Yes, according to the article, the English were wearing so much black and gray that it is hard to tell those in mourning from those just dressed n black. I think the head dress, and materials of the gowns must make the different.

I would love to hear your thoughts!

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