Mourning Clothes and Customs 1889


Mourning Clothes and Customs 1889



This comprehensive article delves into the history of mourning. It particularly focuses on the relationship between mourning activities and the types of dress worn by women during the mourning period. The article sheds light on many of the traditions and peculiarities that are still in use today.


Mourning Clothes and Customs

The present customs relating to funerals and those peculiarities of attire generally comprehended under the term of mourning are neither good in themselves nor command general approval.


National Funeral and Mourning Reform Association

Two societies, each with a distinct mission to revolutionize funeral and mourning practices, stand out. The first, the National Funeral and Mourning Reform Association, holds a significant place in history, having been established as far back as 1875. The second, the Church of England Funeral and Mourning Reform Association, came into being at a later date.

Both societies share similar objectives, yet they differ in their composition and focus. The Church of England society, primarily composed of clergy, directs its discussions towards funeral conduct, with less emphasis on mourning apparel. In contrast, the National Association, with its inclusive approach, welcomes members from all sects, and adopts a more comprehensive view of the issues at hand.

It's crucial to recognize that funeral reform should not overshadow mourning reform. An extravagant and unnecessary display of hired personnel, horses, and carriages can be off-putting to those who value what they see, rather than blindly accepting everything due to familiarity with customs. This underscores the importance of maintaining a balanced perspective in funeral and mourning reform.


The Extraordinary Expense to the Less Fortunate

Funerals can be a financial burden for low-income families and the custom of wearing new clothes can be particularly challenging for them, especially for women. This is because the loss of income due to the death of a family member, who may have been the breadwinner, can be felt immediately.

Even in cases where the deceased was a child or a sick relative, the family may have already spent a lot of money on medical care, medicine, and special food. The obligation to buy new clothes on top of all these expenses can be overwhelming.

It's a common misconception that poor people are less attached to social customs than rich people. In fact, poor people are often even more constrained by social customs because they have less education and are more fearful of breaking the rules.

For example, a working man told a story at a meeting about a family who could not afford to spend much money on a funeral and, as a result, did not go into mourning. Their neighbors insulted and made fun of them for a long time afterward. The obligation to wear mourning clothes after a death is complicated for families with limited incomes.

It often means giving up other necessities and comforts for an entire year. Moreover, the mourning clothes are often useless after the mourning period is over because they may be out of fashion or inappropriate for the time of year.

Some people argue that families should be allowed to decide whether to observe mourning customs, but this is impractical because it would lead to constant speculation about people's incomes and motives. The only solution is to abolish the custom altogether.


Mourning for the Well-To-Do

It's common among wealthy families to spend a considerable amount of money on mourning attire. In families with multiple ladies, the significance of the loss is often overlooked, and discussions about headwear and trimmings take center stage. The relatives gather to decide on the amount of crape or similar material to be used, the shape of the cut, and whether an edging would suffice instead of a full width.

The preparations can be chaotic and make it seem like a grand celebration is underway. Dressing up five or six ladies in mourning apparel is no mean feat and requires a lot of planning and effort. This fuss and activity surrounding mourning clothes is far from what is expected on such an occasion.

It's a custom that seems more honored in the breach than in the observance. Unfortunately, the necessary change of attire often leads to relatives preparing for mourning before the demise of a loved one. Sometimes, they hold off on getting new clothes when necessary because they know someone is unwell and may pass away soon.


Mourning Habits Explained by Example

On certain occasions, a peculiar habit can lead to unexpected outcomes, as exemplified in the following story: Three sisters, all elderly and married, lived in different parts of the country.

Mrs. X had had a disability for some time, which was known to be incurable. During a temporary visit to a large town nearby, Mrs. Y saw her sister and found her in such a weak state that she feared the worst. Consequently, she bought a mourning bonnet before returning home to the country in case she needed to attend Mrs. X's funeral.

However, to everyone's surprise, Mrs. X recovered somewhat in the following months. Unfortunately, a short time later, Mrs. Y fell ill and passed away. The third sister, Mrs. Z, was sent to help take care of Mrs. Y during her illness and was present in the house when she died.

After her death, the maid produced the new black bonnet, explaining that it was the one Mrs. Y had bought for Mrs. X's funeral. Mrs. Z was deeply moved (as the three sisters were very close), took the bonnet, tried it on, and ultimately wore it at Mrs. Y's funeral.


The Discrepancy Between Men and Women in Mourning

The Discrepancy Between Men and Women in Mourning

It is indisputable that women are burdened more heavily with the custom of mourning than men. While men's dress is hardly altered during this period, women bear the entire weight of dressing in mourning attire and following several social norms.

Moreover, it is impressive how men have displayed tact and discretion in avoiding any inconvenience to themselves during the mourning period. However, using the word "grudging" is suitable in this situation.

If men do not agree with these customs and rightfully decide not to comply with them, it would be commendable if they openly expressed their opinions.


Mourning by Proxy

People seem to have found a way to mourn for someone without being personally affected by their loss. This is especially true when it comes to societal norms.

For instance, a young couple lived in a small town after getting married. The wife didn't know much about her husband's family, as they were not acquainted before the marriage. After a few months, the husband's father passed away. Soon after, there was a party in the town that the couple wanted to attend.

After discussing it, they decided that the husband could go, but the wife should stay home because she was still mourning. The neighbors didn't find this odd at all, and when someone questioned it, they were told that the husband's attendance at the party didn't mean anything, but it was too soon for the wife to be seen out.


Mourning Relatives

This phase of thought is often expressed in the difference in time between the reappearance of the sons and daughters of a family that has lost a relationship. If the relationship with the deceased is not very close, it is not considered worthwhile to get the daughters of the family new evening dresses.

The more straightforward course is to forbid parties altogether for a few weeks without much consideration of the young women's wishes. If the relationship is reasonably close, it is felt that such lugubrious apparel as is ordained by custom would be out of place at any scene of enjoyment, so nonetheless, they are kept at home.

However, the person whose loss they are supposed to lament is often a contemporary of their parents, whom they have hardly known. It is expected to meet young men at gatherings who, when asked if their sisters are present, have replied that they could not come as they were still in mourning.

This implies that brothers and sisters do not necessarily have identical kinship ties, and their periods of normal retirement may also differ. It is not right to conclude that all men are heartless and wanting in affection.

Women have not yet entirely surmounted the false position to which they were relegated for so long, where they did not belong to themselves but were more or less the property of their kinsfolk. They shouldn't be glad or sorry as they appear to have these feelings.

Therefore, their clothing and the time of their reappearance in society are governed by fixed dates and not by their independent feelings or wishes, which are held to be of no importance.


The Widow's Mourning

All that is most objectionable in mourning reaches its climax when it comes to a widow's dress. In all cases, the nearer the relative, the more cumbrous the dress of the female mourner becomes.

However, the widow’s dress positively amounts to a mild form of Suttee and would seem to hint that the idea underlying various heathen rites regarding women's conduct is not utterly extinct among us.

There would still seem to be a lurking feeling that if a man dies, it is desirable that some punishment should fall on the wife or that at least she should be sacrificed in some way, as far as possible without being too much out of keeping with the general liberty of the age.

It is, in fact, a survival of the outward expression of the inferiority of women, for, as will be further pointed out later, the inferior always expresses grief for the superior. The superior does not notice the death of the subordinate in this manner.


Dress of a Widow

This dress of a widow may possess every bad, unhygienic quality of women’s apparel (and these genuinely are neither few nor unimportant) intensified fourfold. It is always made extra long and clinging, so exercise is even more impossible than ever.

It is usually cumbersome, surmounted by a species of headdress furnished with one or two (according to taste) long streamers hanging aimlessly down behind. These streamers make it challenging to turn the head, partly because they are comparatively heavy but more particularly because they are rough.

The dress also being crape or some coarse material, they catch to it and have to be continually pushed at with the hands to prevent the cap from being pulled off. Streamers of the same sort are also carefully fixed to the bonnet to ensure the walking dress is as wretchedly uncomfortable as that worn in the house.

Now, if it is taken for granted that most women are sorry when their husband dies—there could not very well be any less desirable form of dress. At any time, it would be depressing, but for one already in low spirits, it is merely brutal, and its utter needlessness is thrown into sharp relief by the fact that there is no unique dress for a widower.

As a wife cannot be considered a nearer relation to her husband than a husband is to his wife, if a distinctive dress is unnecessary in one case, it is also excessive in another.

The only reason ever presented in support of a unique dress is entirely inadequate: a widow might meet someone who might allude to her late husband, not knowing of his death. Such a contingency is highly improbable in these days of newspapers and universal gossip, and even should such a thing occur, its effect would be less damaging than the daily and hourly wear of the worst form of dress that human ingenuity can invent.


Changing the Customs in Mourning

The fundamental notion of those who do not reflect upon the significance of their actions (if such individuals can be said to have any ideas) is that showy funerals and significant changes of attire pay tribute to those who have passed away. However, in reality, adhering to strict, predefined rules diminishes what should be a matter of emotion by reducing it to the level of other social pretenses.

While someone is alive, it is not necessary to display our affection in public, and we all tend to believe that family members are attached to each other. Therefore, there is no reason why this belief should necessitate an extraordinary demonstration when someone dies.

The simplification of life is a crucial need of the present day, whereby we eliminate customs that are detrimental to many, offer no pleasure to anyone, and are only continued due to ostentation. This does not necessarily mean only those things that cost money, although this may be a common form of ostentation: the pretense of liking and admiring a variety of things, whether or not they please us, because other people adopt them.

Many would welcome an act of emancipation that frees them from their current state of bondage, but they are too afraid of one another to express their opinions aloud.

There is a custom of drawing down all the window blinds of a house where someone has died, including the houses of their immediate family and near relations, from the day of death until after the funeral. However, this is done only to comply with a meaningless form, as it is observed only in the case of windows that can be seen from outside.

Living in a shuttered-up and darkened house during these days is bad for both health and spirits. People continue to follow this custom because they fear the thoughtless comments of strangers. This fear prevents them from acting on their true convictions.

Additionally, there is a concern that the fashion of decorating the coffin with flowers may become excessive and inconvenient. This worry has led some to include the words "No flowers" in obituary notices.

To abolish the custom of mourning that requires specific clothing, people could add a few words to their wills stating that they do not wish their relatives to change their dress. This would go a long way in ending these arbitrary methods of clothing.

The idea that someone can find pleasure in knowing that their death will cause their loved ones discomfort is impossible to comprehend. It would be more appropriate for people to mourn in their everyday clothes rather than wearing new outfits, which seems absurd. This would also eliminate the strange practice of strangers pretending to be distressed by the loss of a relative they never knew.

It's unclear why this pretense of mourning is considered gratifying or consoling to the immediate family. Additionally, while it's important to give those who have lost someone time and space to grieve, it's unnecessary to uphold a system that sacrifices the living to the dead.

Joining a society for the purpose of mourning has the effect of making it easier to take the first steps. However, it is important to keep in mind that this practice may not be easily justified by reason. Moreover, those who join should do so when they have not recently lost a relative, so as not to appear biased in their actions.

Also, it is wise to inform as many members of their families as possible about their decision to join. Once it is clear that people do not alter their dress, the practice of not doing so is typically accepted as a matter of course. Proposing to wear mourning again after a break from the practice may shock their friends more than not doing so.

Although some may find it painful to give up the habit of wearing mourning for many friends over the course of their lives, they should still encourage the younger generation to pursue a different course.

Additionally, it is worth noting that people often wear mourning when dressed in their best attire and colored dresses when in everyday clothing. As time goes on, this process may be reversed, and it is unlikely that any fresh departure from the norm will be condemned as illogical.

Society today is more aware of its responsibility to help the poor than it used to be, but it's a shame that people aren't as aware of the duty to set a good example in terms of customs.

Women from upper classes have a significant role to play in this regard, but sometimes, their education and culture are used for trivial purposes, which hinders their progress in setting a good example. It's regrettable that the Court fails to set a good example for the people.

The strict rules for mourning attire and other funereal customs are unworthy of the nation's standards. However, it's true that people don't always follow their Court's example when they want to progress in anything. Therefore, it's perhaps useless to expect the matter of mourning to be an exception.

Many people don't necessarily like the idea of mourning, but they still want to show that they have lost a loved one. For this purpose, a small black band around one's arm could be the best solution. For widows and widowers, this band could have a narrow edge of white or grey.

For other relatives, it could be all black or have a margin of red or blue. This would make it easily visible on dark clothing and avoid any accidental allusions.


Clothing Wardrobe

In this text, the author discusses the custom of wearing dark clothing as a sign of mourning, and how it is often misused by the wealthy to flaunt their status. The author argues that this practice is inappropriate and outdated, especially in the context of modern employment relationships.

The author notes that many people in this country wear dark clothing in their daily lives, and that brightly colored clothing is usually reserved for special occasions. Even women tend to have more dark dresses than light ones. However, the author emphasizes that this is not the same as wearing mourning clothes.

The author argues that mourning clothes should only be worn for close relatives, and that wearing them for servants or other distant relations is meaningless and vulgar. The author suggests that this practice is a way for the wealthy to assert their dominance over their employees, and that it contributes to the devaluation of domestic service as a profession.

The author acknowledges that some servants may not fully understand the implications of wearing mourning clothes, and may even enjoy receiving new clothes from their employers. However, the author argues that this practice is ultimately demeaning and insulting, and that it is one of many reasons why domestic service is increasingly unpopular.



In summary, it is not unreasonable to note that when considering whether to change one's attire after the death of a loved one, there is no reason to believe that such a change would result in immediate forgetfulness of the deceased. The period of mourning does not last just a few months but instead, it lasts for many years. It is a blessing that such forgetfulness takes time to set in.

Imagine if all griefs remained as sharp as they were in the beginning, the world would be in a constant state of sorrow. Mourning clothes do not impact one's emotions in a positive way, but rather, they add to the burden of grief. It is one of the many challenges that women have had to bear as they have progressed from barbarism to civilization.

Considering the negative impact that mourning clothes can have, it would be wise for women to attempt to rid themselves of this tradition in whatever way they see fit based on their individual circumstances.


Based on the Article by Harberton, F. W. aka Florence Wallace Legge Pomeroy (Viscountess Haberton), “Mourning Clothes and Customs,” in Woman’s World, Cassell & Company, Limited: London, Paris, New York & Melbourne, Vol. 2, No. 8, August 1889, p. 418-421.


Return to Top of Page