Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Stages of Victorian Mourning

Queen Victoria in mourning with white trim.
The Victorian Period lasted for the reign of Queen Victoria, from 1837-1901. It’s strict mourning structure was influenced by the Georgian Period 1714-1830, and continued into the succeeding Edwardian Period, 1901-1910, though strictures relaxed a bit. Formal mourning etiquette and practice peaked during Victoria’s reign. After the death of her beloved husband, Prince Albert, in 1861, the Queen spent three years in deep mourning, and the rest of her rule in more relaxed mourning attire.
Mourning etiquette was as strictly held in the antebellum South as it was in England. As a cultural custom, it was quite expensive. It either required the immediate building of an entire new wardrobe, or it necessitated that existing wardrobe pieces be “overdyed” black. This process would forever pull them out of daily use. One has to wonder if some poorer widows chose to spend the rest of their lives in black, not out of continued grief, but out of poverty and the inability to create a new wardrobe.
In death, curtains were closed and clocks were stopped. Mourning clothes were meant to serve as an outward display of inner sorrow, in a time when emotional hysterics were taboo. Popular household journals like The Queen and Cassell’s listed proper mourning etiquette in great detail, and were a staple for respectable housewives. It described in detail what was expected of them for the death of a third cousin, for example, or that of a brother-in-law. Children were not expected to wear mourning colors, though it wasn’t uncommon for girls to wear white dresses for mourning.

Full Mourning
Civil War widow in full veil.
The first stage in the death of a loved one was the Full Mourning period, and the most dramatic. The fashion itself became a means of removing oneself from regular society. I can understand the sentiment. It’s the grief period of surreal disbelief, where every mundane is no longer mundane because the deceased is no longer with you.
Women wore heavy and concealing black clothes, and long, weighted crepe veils attached to special hats and bonnets. The term “widow’s weeds” comes from the Old English waed for “garment.” Dresses were made out of flat black fabrics, like a non-reflective parramatta silk, or a more affordable bombazine. Cashmeres, grenadines, and tulles were also acceptable. The dresses were trimmed with crepe, a stiff, scratchy, crimped silk that didn’t combine well with other fabrics.
The main adornment was jewelry made of jet. It was a lesser stone with organic origins, decayed wood under extreme pressure (think ‘hard coal’). The wealthy often wore cameos or lockets which would hold hair or some other relic of the deceased. These items were considered sentimental jewelry and were not specifically mourning ware.
Widows wore mourning clothes for two to four years after the death of their husband, actual time varying by region. She could choose to dress in blacks for the rest of her life. In the American South, the full mourning crepe would be applied as one piece, starting about an inch below the waist and a couple inches above the hem. For a year widows would seclude themselves and see no one but close family. Outside of her home she would wear a black bonnet with a long opaque veil. It was a signal for others to leave her alone, and let her about her business.
"Fell asleep, June 27th 1870, aged 17."
Full Mourning lasted for at least a year and changing out of full mourning dress early was a sign of disrespect. If the widow was young enough, it was also an act that stigmatized probable promiscuity and sullied her reputation. A widow was not permitted to enter society for twelve months. No man or woman was supposed to attend social events while deep in mourning.
Men were not subject to quite the same restrictions as women. Those in service that required a uniform could wear a simple black armband while in mourning. For other men, an armband instead of full proper mourning attire was a break in etiquette. Gentlemen were expected to wear a Mourning Suit, which was a black frock coat, trousers, and matching waistcoat. It included black gloves, hatbands, and cravats. This should not be confused with the traditional Morning Suit, a suit for weddings and other formal occasions that would often include striped or checked trousers.
Husbands mourned wives for six months to a year. Wearing a black armband, he was allowed to business, as well as social parties. The widower could remarry whenever he wished, even within the six month period, at which point his mourning period would be over.

Slighting the Mourning
In some places, at this stage, the crepe trim could be removed from dresses, capes, and bonnets. But the dark dress beneath the crepe remained. Any accessories were still black. In the American South, after a year’s seclusion, the widow would shorten the crepe apron and alter the veil from waist-length to shoulder-length.

Half Mourning
After the crepe was removed, secondary mourning colors like grey and lavender, or mauve, and even white, could be introduced as trim on the black garments. Gold, silver, and other precious gemstones can be added to jet jewelry, but could not replace it. Exact time varies by region, but the move from full mourning to half mourning was gradual and happened in stages.
In the American South, after eighteen months, the crepe was removed entirely and secondary colors were added. The widow was now allowed to go without a veil or she would move from a shoulder length veil to a chin-length one. She could begin receiving visitors in her home and she herself could be seen outside of her home. For six months she would gradually include more of the secondary mourning colors in place of the black.
After two years and a day, the widow could come out of mourning entirely. She would send out cards to her friends and relatives, inviting them to come see her. She would invite them to fill her home up with life again.

Jay’s London General Mourning Warehouse of Regent Street in London, started in 1841, built itself up around accommodating grieving families with new, ready-made wardrobes designed for each stage of mourning. A superstition even popped up alluding that it was bad luck to keep mourning clothes in the home after the mourning period was over, insuring repeat customers. This may have well been the precursor to today’s department store.

Mourning for Other Relations
According to the mourning guides, parents would wear mourning for two years after the loss of a child, or as long as they wished to after the two years were over. Children would mourn the death of a parent for a year. At the death of a grandparent, mourning colors were worn for six months. After two months in black silk with crepe, they would spend the next two months in black with no crepe. The final two months were spent in secondary mourning colors. They would mourn the death of a sibling for six months as well. The first three months were spent in crepe, then two months in regular black, and the last month in secondary mourning colors.
Aunts and uncles were mourned for two or three months in just black garb, no crepe. The first month is observed with jet jewelry only. Six weeks for great uncles and aunts. Four weeks for cousins. And then it gets complicated… the in-laws. A woman would mourn her aunt-by-marriage for two months, same as her own, but only if her Uncle was still alive. If he wasn’t, she may only mourn the deceased for a month. And so on. I think I understand why there was a standard manual.

            Taking the Victorian mores out of the custom, and forgoing the hypocrisy and sexism of the restrictions placed upon the widows (still property of their husbands), I get the ritual aspect. Grief is difficult. We think we know how to navigate it but it always surprises us. Even if we’ve done it before, every time the grief is different.
Often we have moments of feeling like we don’t know how to be in the world and the world doesn’t seem to know how to react to our grief. In the Victorian world, the surrounding community would allow for the family to shut themselves away while they transitioned into a changed household. And those in mourning could attend to the everyday things that needed attending to, certain that no one would interrupt their attempts to see mundane tasks through.

Gradually, it would allow the griever to ease out of the river of sorrow, and gently re-integrate with society. It seems a more human response than what we get in the modern world. When my grandfather died and I told my boss I needed to go home for a week to be with my family, he didn’t have to let me go- although I was going whether it meant my job or not. There are many jobs and he was my only grandfather. As it was, my boss left messages for me every morning while we were grieving and arranging funerals and entertaining others in sorrow, pressuring me to come back to work. I would have much preferred a heavy veil and forced seclusion away from spreadsheets and sales calls.

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