Mourning Clothes and Customs 1889

Mourning Clothes and Customs 1889


A comprehensive article discusses the history of mourning and focuses on the relationship of mourning activities to the types of dress worn by women during the mourning period. The article explains many of the quirks and traditions still in use today. - GG Archives

Mourning Clothes and Customs

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

National Funeral and Mourning Reform Association

The truth of this assertion is strongly supported by the fact of there being now no less than two societies for the express purpose of altering them. The elder of these was started fourteen years ago, in 1875, and is called the National Funeral and Mourning Reform Association.

The second society, which has had a somewhat shorter existence, is called the Church of England Funeral and Mourning Reform Association.

These two societies work, to a certain extent, on the same lines; but in the accounts given in the published reports of the meetings of the last-named organization, there is a striking absence of allusion to the second subject which its title would seem to show its members wish to reform.

Speaker after speaker gets up, but they one and all limit their observations to the conducting of funerals, and to the various methods of disposal of the dead. This, perhaps, is not so strange as it seems at first glance.

In a Church of England Society, as may be inferred from its name, the speakers are mostly clergymen, the women present sitting in silence; and the subject of mourning apparel affects men directly very little, while it affects women very much.

The National Association, which is formed on a much broader basis, in not being confined to any one sect, takes a somewhat more equal view of the objects which called it into existence.

However, even here the speeches especially relating to funerals are in about the proportion of three to one to those referring to mourning.

It can hardly be said that the importance of funeral reform is higher than that of mourning reform. Of course, a senseless display of hired men, horses, and carriages, is vulgar and displeasing to those who attach any meaning to the things they see, instead of ignorantly acquiescing in all things because they happen to be familiarized by custom.

The Extraordinary Expense to the Less Fortunate

But although such funerals as these causes much misery by compelling poor people to spend more money on them than is called for by their circumstances, the fact that a death in a family obliges all the women of that family to at once provide themselves with a sort of trousseau, causes even more misery in the long run.

Among the very poor this necessity for new clothes comes just at a time when they can least afford it. If the deceased relative is one of the bread-winners of the family, the cessation of the weekly money makes this evident at once.

However, even if it is only a child or ailing relative, it is probable that a certain amount of expense has already been incurred for medical attendance, appliances, medicines, and invalid food of various sorts.

The demand for a new outlay on clothes, which otherwise are not then required, becomes therefore peculiarly challenging to meet.

Moreover, let no one solace themselves by imagining that the poor are less of a slave to customs than the rich. On the contrary, they are even more bound by them.

Just as uncivilized nations worship their old customs, however unintelligible, and fear to break through them in the smallest detail, so in proportion to their want of education do our people dread the slightest departure from established rules.

The higher the education and culture, the less likely either individuals or communities bound by mere custom.

At a meeting of one of the above-named societies, A working man gave an account of the extraordinary ill-will and anger excited in a neighborhood by the members of one family having ventured to consult common sense and the amount they could honestly spend in the matter of the funeral of a relative, and, being poor, they had made no attempt to go into mourning, as in order to do so they must have run into debt.

As a consequence, they were insulted in every possible way and jeered at by their neighbors for a long time after.

Among persons of what may be called “limited incomes,” the obligation to provide mourning means the loss of every little comfort for the survivors for the next year to come, often thereby entailing real suffering on the old, and probably the loss of some useful branch of education on the young.

For it should be remembered that the dresses and other garments laid aside are practically useless at the expiration of the regular period for wearing black. They may be out of fashion, or perhaps unsuited to the time of year, so that here again there is additional expense and trouble.

Some people may say that each family should decide such customs as wearing mourning on the grounds of expediency: and that although in some instances poverty ought rightly to prevent its adoption, there is no reason why the rich should not display their wealth of money or emotion as they please.

A minimal reflection, however, shows this to be impossible, as human nature is presently constituted. It would lead to a continual gauging of everyone's income by their acquaintance, who at the same time would have no actual knowledge on which to base their calculations.

In consequence, idle discussions would continually take place to decide whether the mourning was omitted from necessity or parsimony.

So that its adoption would remain as imperative as ever, and provide lasting good, the custom must be given up entirely.

Mourning for the Well-To-Do

Among the well-to-do classes, of course, the amount of money spent on mourning dress has not to be considered; but in any such family where there are several ladies, it is usual to find the sense of loss is almost overlooked and forgotten in questions of headwear and trimmings.

The various relatives have to meet and discuss the amount of crape (or whatever material may temporarily be used in imitation of crape; whether it is to be cut in this or that shape; and if it will do to have merely an edging instead of a whole width, or some equally ridiculous proposition.

Indeed, the general fuss and activity would lead a casual observer to suppose some great festival was on hand, for it is no light matter to entirely re-clothe some five or six fashionable ladies becoming in as many days.

All this is so entirely at variance with what ought to be on such an occasion that, taken by itself, it would make most people feel that mourning, as far as clothes are concerned, is one of those customs which would be more honored in the breach than the observance.

The necessary change of attire also leads to the very unpleasant habit of relatives making provision for mourning before the person dies. Sometimes it takes the form of abstaining from getting dresses when they are needed because someone is known to be ill.

Mourning Habits Explained by Example

On other occasions, this habit gives rise to curious results, as may be briefly pointed out in the following instance: —

There were three sisters, elderly married ladies, living in different parts of the country. Mrs. X had a disability for some years, and it was known that her recovery was impossible.

Mrs. Y, going to see her during a temporary visit to a large town in her neighborhood, found her so weak that she was led to fear the end was near.

She, therefore, bought a mourning bonnet before returning to her home in the country, to be ready if summoned to the funeral. Time went on, and Mrs. X, contrary to all expectations, rallied somewhat; but, a few months later, Mrs. Y fell ill, and died after a short illness.

The third sister, Mrs. Z, was sent to help to nurse her and was in the house at the time of her death. After the death, the maid produced the new black bonnet, saying with tears that it was the bonnet her mistress had got for Mrs. X's funeral. Mrs. Z significantly affected (they being a most attached family), took the bonnet, fitted it on, and finally wore it at Mrs. Y’s funeral.

The Discrepancy Between Men and Women in Mourning

It is indisputable that the custom of mourning presses far more heavily on women than on men. In fact, so trifling are the alterations made in a man’s dress on this account that practically the whole burden of mourning trappings would seem to have devolved upon women, as well as all sorts of normal retirement.

Furthermore, when one ponders on the tact and discretion men have shown in avoiding any inconvenience to themselves in this matter, it cannot fail to command our grudging admiration.

Also, the word “grudging” is in this case right; for if they do not approve of these customs, and therefore, and rightly, decide not to comply with them, how much more admirable it would be if they were to say so Openly!

Mourning by Proxy

However, what they have done amounts to this—that in most cases, and particularly where their feelings are not genuinely concerned, they positively manage to mourn by proxy, and this with the general consent of public opinion!

One example of this will probably suffice to bring to many minds parallel instances which they have witnessed: -- A young married couple were living in the country neighborhood in which they had settled after their marriage.

Their respective families had not been acquainted before the marriage, and, as they did not live near them, it followed that the wife knew but little of her husband’s family.

The husband’s father died, and some three or four months after there was a party given in the neighborhood, at which, for particular reasons, the young couple was anxious to be present.

After some discussion, it was decided that it would be entirely right for the man to go, but the wife should stay at home on account of her mourning being so deep!

So this arrangement was carried out. The neighbors saw nothing strange about it, as one who ventured a remark on the subject was told that the man’s being at the party meant nothing, though the wife could not possibly have been seen out so soon.

Mourning Relatives

This phase of thought is also often to be seen expressed in the difference of time which intervenes between the reappearance in the society of the sons and the daughters of any family who have lost a relation.

If the relationship to the deceased is not very near, it is not thought worthwhile to get the daughters of the family new evening dresses, so the more straightforward course is pursued of forbidding parties altogether for a few weeks, the wishes of the young women themselves probably not being taken much into consideration.

If, on the other hand, the relationship is reasonably close, it is felt that such extremely lugubrious apparel as is ordained by custom would be out of place at any scene of enjoyment, so none the less they are kept at home.

Very likely the person whose loss they are thus supposed to deplore is a contemporary of their parents, whom they have hardly known.

It must, indeed, be within the experience of most people to have met young men at gatherings of various kinds, who, on being asked if their sisters were present, have replied with a charming frankness that they could not come, as they were still in mourning.

One would suppose that the ties of consanguinity were identical for brothers and sisters and that therefore periods of normal retirement would also be the same.

It would not, however, be right to jump to the conclusion that all men are heartless and wanting in affection. Moreover, such would be far indeed from the truth.

It instead shows that while they are held free, and fit to act as their individual feelings prompt, women have not yet entirely surmounted the false position to which they were relegated so long—that they do not belong to themselves but are more or less the property of their kinsfolk.

So that it is not so much desirable that they should be glad or sorry as that they should appear to have these feelings.

Their clothing and the time of their reappearance in society are therefore to be 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 the dress of a widow. In all cases, the nearer the relative, the more cumbrous becomes the dress of the female mourner.

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 as to the conduct of women 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 is 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 on, 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 be said to possess every bad, and unhygienic quality of women’s apparel (and these genuinely are neither few nor unimportant) intensified fourfold. It is always made both extra-long and clinging, so that exercise is even more impossible than ever.

It is usually cumbersome, and it is 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; and 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 being pulled off.

Streamers of the same sort are also carefully fixed to the bonnet, to ensure the walking-dress being 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 barbarous, 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 to be 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 unnecessary in the other.

The only reason ever brought forward in support of a unique dress is entirely inadequate, for it is to the effect that a widow might meet someone who might allude to the 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 injurious than the daily and hourly wear of the worst form of dress that human ingenuity can invent.

Changing the Customs in Mourning

The primary idea of people who do not consider the meaning of their actions (so far as such people can be said to have any ideas) is, of course, that the customs of showy funerals and significant changes of attire honor those who have died.

In reality, they have somewhat the contrary effect, for by their compliance with specific hard-and-fast rules they reduce what should be a matter of feeling to the level of other social shams.

As long as a person is living, we do not think it necessary to parade our affection in public, and we are all willing to believe that the members of any family are attached to one another.

There seems, therefore, no reason why this belief should be held to require extraordinary demonstration when someone happens to die.

The simplification of life is one great need of the present day—the gradual dropping of numbers of customs which are injurious to many, which give pleasure to no one, and are merely kept up from a spirit of ostentation.

This does not necessarily mean only those things which cost money, though this may be a common form of ostentation, but the pretense of liking and admiring a variety of things, whether they please us or not, because other people adopt them.

Many would hail with joy an emancipation act which would free them from their present state of bondage but are too much afraid of each other to give audible expression to their opinion.

Another custom which is entirely sustained from the above cause is that of drawing down all the window blinds of the houses both of the immediate family and of the near relations, from the day of death until after the funeral is over.

That this is only done to comply with an empty form is sufficiently shown by its being observed just in the case of windows that can be seen from without.

It is established that living all those days in a shuttered-up and a darkened house is most injurious, depressing as it is to both health and spirits.

People go on doing it, merely because they cannot bring themselves to act on their true convictions for fear of the thoughtless remarks of strangers.

There also seems a good reason to fear that the fashion of surrounding the coffin with flowers will presently be carried to such an extreme as to become a severe inconvenience.

This danger already appears to have struck some persons, as the words “No flowers" occasionally follow obituary notices in the papers.

Much might be done towards abolishing the custom of mourning employing arbitrary methods of clothing if people when making their wills would add a few words to the effect that they wished their relatives to make no change in their dress.

It is quite impossible to believe that anyone can derive pleasure from the thought that his or her death will entail a certain amount of discomfort from his or her dearest friends. True grief would also be more fittingly shown by people going about in their quiet everyday garments than by suddenly budding out in new dresses.

This would also have the advantage of doing away with the absurdity of seeing people who, though relations in blood, are in reality strangers, pretending to be distressed by the demise of relatives they have either never seen or at least not known, in the ordinary acceptation of the term.

Why a pretense of mourning under these circumstances is considered so peculiarly gratifying and consolatory to the immediate family, is one of those things that must forever remain a mystery.

Also, though there is every reason why those who have lost one who is dear to them should be left in peace until time has somewhat deadened the pain of grief, there is no reason why a system should be upheld which practically sacrifices the living to the dead.

Joining a society for such an object as this has the effect of making it easier to take the first steps; for everyone who “goes into mourning” not only does something which can hardly honestly recommend itself to their reason but is helping to bind a grievous burden upon others.

Those, however, who join would be wise to do so when they have not recently lost a relative, to avoid the appearance of anything personal in their action. It would also be wise to let as many members of their families as possible know that they have joined it.

After the first time, when it is seen that people do not alter their dress, they will probably find that they are not doing so is afterward taken as a matter of course and that their proposing to wear mourning again would shock their friends far more than they’re not doing so had done.

There are, perhaps, a certain number of people who, during the course of a long life, have worn mourning for many friends more or less cared for, and it is comprehensible that to them the giving up of the habit might be painful.

However, though preferring to continue it for themselves, they might well sanction the younger generation pursuing a different course.

And when it is borne in mind how continually the spectacle may be observed of people wearing mourning when arrayed in their best, and keeping to colored dresses when in everyday costume, and as time goes on with this process reversed, no fears need be entertained of any fresh departure being able to be condemned on the ground of its being illogical.

Society in the main is so very much more alive to the duties it owes its poorer neighbors than it used to be, in matters connected with providing funds for the relief of distress, that it is a pity it is not also more alive to the equal duty of setting a fitting example in matters of custom.

This responsibility, resting mainly upon the women of the upper classes, is only as yet very partially perceived by them. However, if their education and culture are to be used for frivolous objects, their real progress in these paths is less than it appears to be.

It is also regrettable that the Court sets such a bad example to the people in this matter. The accounts of the absurd regulations of dress for mourning and other funereal vagaries are utterly unworthy of the nation.

However, it is needless to point out that if people wish to advance in anything, they rarely have the gratification of finding themselves following in the footsteps of their Court. So it is, perhaps, vain to expect the question of mourning to be the one exception to the rule.

There are many people who, while thoroughly disapproving of mourning (as the term is now understood), would still wish to have some mark to show they have lost a relative; and for this purpose, nothing could be better than the small black band worn around one arm.

For widowers and widows alike it might be made with a narrow edge of white or grey; for other relations, it might be either all black or have a margin of red or blue. This would have the effect of making it more easily visible on dark clothing and get over the difficulty-if difficulty it be—of any chance allusions.

Clothing Wardrobe

The expression here of dark clothing need not be held to contradict the previous recommendation of making no change in the everyday dress, for in this country most people, both men, and women, habitually wear dark clothing.

Even women usually have three dark dresses in their wardrobe for one light one, and obtrusively gay-colored clothing is rarely worn, except for special occasions.

These bands should only be worn for quite near relations; else they would become as meaningless as is the present farce of complimentary mourning.

The innate vulgarity of mind which leads to people putting their servants into mourning is a point of some interest. For it is a means given by wealth of self-glorification. There is no reciprocity about it.

No one would dream of noticing in this manner the death of any number of his or her servants’ relations. “The sun shines on many flowers, but the flowers see but one sun," would appear to be their motto.

The employer is to be the one great object on the horizon of the employed, and though (unlike the sun) he is in truth to the full as dependent on them as they are on him, this little fact is not admitted, but they are to abase themselves and pretend to a sympathy and grief which it is improbable more than an infinitesimal number of them can feel in the least, as the custom is not even confined to the one household where the death occurs, but extends to those of the immediate relations.

It is a survival probability of the old idea of a clan or tribe bewailing the loss of its chief, but there could hardly be anything less suited to the purely commercial relations of modern servants and their employers.

It is one of many causes by which employers since they refuse to understand the feelings of those employed in this particular occupation, help to make domestic service the most undignified and unattractive of professions.

Accurate, each servant may not fully perceive it, and may even like to get new clothes given them; but it tends, maybe unconsciously, to lower them in the estimation of their equals. Which of us would not feel insulted at being asked to mourn in this way for some other man’s relation?

To no other class of workers would employers even dare to suggest such a thing; and because of the ever-increasing dislike which is felt for this occupation, it is worthwhile to note all the reasons which tend to make it so unpopular.


In conclusion, it is not out of place to remark that in considering the question as to the desirability of making changes in the dress on the death of relatives, there is no ground to suppose that, were the fashion omitted, such relatives would be immediately forgotten.

The time of forgetfulness is not the few months immediately following the loss, but, preferably, long years after. Also, is it not a mercy that such oblivion should be like things? For what would life become if all griefs of this sort retained their first poignancy?

The whole world would be entirely steeped in woe. So far from mourning having any effect on feelings, it has the contrary influence instead, and in the most significant number of cases, it only adds an element of worry to grief.

It is one of the many disabilities and heavy burdens that have devolved on women in their progress from barbarism to civilization; and as it is one that cannot fail to be injurious in many ways, they would do well and wisely to endeavor to free themselves from it by the method which may seem to each individually most fitting and feasible in her particular surroundings.

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

Note: We have edited this text to correct grammatical errors and improve word choice to clarify the article for today’s readers. Changes made are typically minor, and we often left passive text “as is.” Those who need to quote the article directly should verify any changes by reviewing the original material.

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