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The serious business of mourning during the Victorian era is not so different than modern times

In the Victorian era, it was Queen Victoria’s choice to wear black after the loss of her husband in 1861. She was so heartbroken after her 20 years plus marriage to her cousin (as husband) that she continuously wore black until her own death 40 years later. The nobles imitated their leader to wear black mourning clothes themselves, for significant periods after their partner had died. It was social etiquette for the wife to wear black for 1-2 years after the death of her husband.

Women would wear sophisticated mourning dresses, typically of silk for the wealthy and bombazine for others. Wearing mourning clothes was so popular that specific shops catered to this need. Because mourners would need these clothes quickly, there were well-known retailers that specialized in every conceivable mourning item. Because it was seen as disrespectful to re-wear mourning clothing after the mourning period passed, these retailers had repeat customers. In the first phase of mourning, women were to be dressed completely in black covered in crepe, a stiff, scratchy fabric. In addition to the uncomfortable crepe, women wore crinoline petticoats. Women frequently made their own shrouds and would even include them in their wedding dowry. 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.

The women in the second phase of mourning would wear elaborate and beautiful jewelry, embellished with onyx or jet. People wore brooches, rings, and necklaces with cherubs, clouds, urns, and willow trees. These sentimental images not only showed the world that the wearer was in mourning, but they were a reminder of the lost loved one.

Sometimes mourners incorporated the braided hair of the dearly departed into the jewelry that were worn by mourners. Acting as a form of Memento Mori (a reminder of death), hair lockets reminded Victorian people of death daily. Artists used the hair of the deceased to create shadow boxes and corsages too. We still wear mourning jewelry but today it is more likely to contain the ashes of the deceased.

For men, it was expected that they would wear black for 3-6 months instead. Men wore black gloves, a dark suit, and a black band around their hat.

During the Victorian era, it was not just Queen Victoria herself who took mourning very seriously. In Britain during these years, mourning was taken extremely earnestly. Women would collect in bottles the tears that they had cried over those they had lost. If someone passed away without leaving behind a mourning widow, there was always the option of hiring someone to cry over your grave. Even in 2023 there are professional (for hire) moirologists.

In conclusion, by wearing mourning clothes and participating in mourning customs, the Victorian people expressed their inner grief on the outside. It’s no so different than our modern-day customs. Mourning is a universal experience that connects humans young and old. Though these Victorian practices might feel distant to us now, they were a natural evolution that turned into the traditions we know today.

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