Monday, April 13, 2015

Death Becomes Her

by Sandra Byrd

Queen Victoria's Daughters, mourning
The Victorians cared very much about how outward appearances reflected inward sentiments and morality. One way they expressed themselves was through mourning clothes and jewelry. Queen Victoria famously wore black from the time of Prince Albert's death  in 1861 till her own death some 40 years later.  Mourning regulations were handy social signals to others. Deaths were announced via mourning stationary and sealed with black wax. Sally Mitchell, in Daily Life in Victorian England reminds us that, "Mourning clothes made other people aware of a loss and prevented intrusive personal remarks."

The Business of Mourning

According to Kristine Hughes (The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England),  early in the nineteenth century ladies' magazines "regularly featured fashion plates depicting proper funeral attire, along with articles detailing proper etiquette for the occasion." She goes on to tell us that linen drapers shops offered mourning departments. Why? It was big, big business.  Who didn't know someone who had died? Women were limited to the colors black and then grey, but might creatively use different fabrics, textures, and styling to indicate status, wealth, and personal taste. Hughes claims that, "one of the first categories of clothing to be mass-produced was mourning clothes." Believably so!

What to Wear

Contrary to the Queen's lengthy example, a widow was expected to mourn her husband for only two years - most people didn't live as long as Victoria, and there was little time to waste. Mitchell reminds us that the widow, "could moderate her funereal clothing a bit after a while to 'half-mourning,' which consisted of pinstripe black." Later this also included grays, especially for the younger generation.

Mitchell continues, "During the first year of mourning, widows were to conduct themselves as veritable social outcasts, forced to refuse all invitations, the only visits permitted being to close relatives or church services, including weddings and christenings." The parent or a child of the deceased was expected to mourn for a shorter period of time: Twelve months in whole, which eventually moved in color from black, to grey before the full color spectrum was allowed along with full engagement in social activities. Siblings mourned for six months.


Unless the death was a suicide, funerals usually took place in the morning.  Mitchell says, "Among the gentry and prosperous middle classes, the coach was draped in black velvet and the horses wore black plumes," and, "Male friends or hired mourners called mutes walked alongside. Sometimes they carried the heavy black pall that was draped over the coffin. Everyone attending the funeral wore black garments made of wool and crepe. Men wore black gloves; flowing bands of black cloth known as weepers were tied around their hats. Even among the poorest, it was important for immediate relatives to wear black clothing."

No family? Few friends? No problem.  Mourners would be hired.  In fact, the British newspaper The Daily Express newspaper tells us that mutes, "looked tragic during the service and doubled as waiters for the wake. Dickens despised them and in the funeral in Martin Chuzzlewit he describes: 'Two mutes… looking as mournful as could reasonably be expected of men with such a thriving job in hand.'"

Black Baubles, Hair Rings and Pulled Teeth

One of the most fascinating, and perhaps creepy, aspect of Victorian mourning was the jewelry it inspired.

Items made of jet grew popular after the Queen wore it upon the death of Prince Albert, a custom she did not abandon clear to her own death in 1901. According to Hughes, "Jet jewelry has been associated with mourning for some time, though it was not mass-produced before the early 19th century. Jet is made from the fossilized driftwood of the monkey puzzle tree and is also found in the form of slate."  Mitchell adds," Very close relatives might wear a brooch or watch-fob woven from the dead person’s hair."

Yes, hair.

Hughes tells us that, "Jewelry made from the hair of the deceased was popular from 1790 to 1840, and this, too, was incorporated into mourning jewelry, being given settings of black or white enamel, jet with gold, and often embellished with the words 'In Memoriam.'" Sometimes they would take a tooth from a deceased and mount it in a ring or a necklace.  They didn't eat much sugar then so contrary to current opinion, their teeth were pretty good.  Just, perhaps, not pretty in the finger.

Memento Mori

Memento Mori is Latin for, Remember... you have to die.  During the early days of photography, the Victorians would take pictures of the recently deceased in their homes, gardens, or even beds, posed doing something they would have done while alive.  Perhaps it was a macabre way to remind the survivors to think of the fleetingness of life, and to number their days.  The oddest, most morbid photos included babies who had passed away settled neatly into their prams.

What's Old Is New Again

It's true that there is nothing new under the sun, and mourning is big business again. Black still predominates, and while pictures of those passed are not popular, The Daily Express reports that, "Rent A Mourner, an Essex-based company providing sad people for funerals when (as its website delicately puts it) 'here may be a low turnout expected'. Bookings are also on the up because people want something more dramatic than a mousey British send-off. They want sobbing, hair tearing and breast beating, in the way of excitable foreigners."

Perhaps this is an answer to temporary job needs. As Assistant Editor Jennifer Selway puts it, "Yes, a career in professional mourning could be the answer. Short hours, free booze and all the ham sandwiches you can eat."

No hairy brooches required.


To learn more about Sandra's new Victorian Gothic Romance series, Daughters of Hampshire, including the first book, Mist of Midnight, please visit:


  1. My grandfather died in 1957 and my grandmother wore successively black, grey and purple, the last two for the remaining 22 years of her life

  2. My grandfather died in 1957 and my grandmother wore successively black, grey and purple, the last two for the remaining 22 years of her life

  3. There's something very sweet about that devotion, Mairi!


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