Victorian Mourning: An Art Form in the 19th Century

Victorian mourning was an art form among the upper crust in nineteenth century England. There were many complex rules and mourning was expected to be exteriorized, not only by obvious sorrow but also by wearing black clothing that was sometimes worn for months and months. In addition, superstition often accompanied mourning and included such things as covering mirrors to prevent a person’s spirit from becoming trapped or stopping clocks at the time of a person’s death.

Victorian mourning

A woman dressed in widow weeds. Authors collection.

The standard mourning period usually lasted two years and essentially involved three stages for women. Full mourning was the first stage and lasted one year and a day. During this stage women were expected to wear morbid black clothing without any ornamentation. Perhaps, the weeping veil best represents the full mourning stage. Second mourning lasted nine months, and although widows continued to wear coal-black clothing, minor ornamentation (such as jewelry or trim) was acceptable. Half mourning lasted from three to six months. The fabrics and fashions of this stage gradually moved from black to color and from minor ornamentation to elaborate.

Queen Victoria in a mourning headdress after the death of her husband Albert, by Carl Rudolph Sohn. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Victorian mourning was also primarily aimed at widows and had a way of isolating them. A widow was restricted to attending church services, and women in full mourning were expected to wear black widow weeds (a black crepe dress with white muslin cuffs and collar, a black bombazine mantle, a black crepe bonnet with an attached weeping veil, and black gloves) whenever they left their home. Widows also wore black at home, along with a widow’s cap. Interestingly, if a woman was elderly, she frequently remained in the second or half mourning stage for the rest of her life.

Queen Victoria in mourning, half length directed to left, almost in profile; in widow’s outfit, with white crepe cap and black lace shawl; in oval; with Royal Coat of Arms at bottom. Courtesy of the British Museum.

Victorian mourning was less restrictive for men. Widowers had a single mourning period that lasted from six months to one year. During that time, men could work and freely go about their daily activities, but they were also expected to wear lackluster black frock coats with matching trousers and waistcoats. When widowers came out of mourning, they were expected to inform friends by announcing it with cards.

Children were also required to dress in mourning clothes but mourning for young children never lasted for more than a year. In addition, children, primarily under the ages of 17, wore garments that changed with the season. White garments with black trim were worn in the summer and gray garments with black trim were worn in the winter. To a greater or lesser degree, friends, household members, and employees of the deceased might also be required to mourn. For instance, a servant might wear a black arm band to indicate they were in mourning for a household member.

Victorian also had great fear about being buried alive as that was something that supposedly happened to a Madame Bluden. This fear peaked during the cholera epidemics of the 19th century that killed people like Madame Récamier and Jane Austen‘s brother, Charles. Because of premature burials a safety coffin or security coffin was invented that allowed occupants to signal that they had been buried alive. One man, Robert Robinson, was so fearful about being prematurely buried he had a movable pane of glass inserted in his coffin and the mausoleum in which he was entombed had a door that could be inspected by a watchman to see if he breathed on the glass. Safety or security coffins were often equipped with a bell so that it could be rung and sometimes poison was also placed in the casket so that it the bell didn’t work the person could ensure death from the poison. 

“Premature Burial” by Antoine Wiertz. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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