Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Victorian Mourning Customs

Warning, this post contains some macabre information and might not be for the weak of heart. We’re going to talk about death and dying.

It’s a topic the average American avoids, postponing any thought of their demise as if they plan to live forever. Yet the Angel of Death will descend upon us – sooner or later. We’re all going to die, it’s just a matter of timing.

The Victorians had a closer relationship with death, because it was a constant factor in their lives. Poor hygiene, questionable medical procedures, the danger of infection, and infectious diseases all contributed to an average life expectancy of 42 years. The people of this era didn’t fear death, but they were afraid they would not be properly mourned when they passed.

So, an elaborate structure of mourning customs developed during this era, inspired in part by Queen Victoria, when she went into mourning for her beloved Prince Albert.

The rules dictating fashion requirements and social activities were strictest for a widow. She was expected to follow prescribed rules for dressing, conducting herself and publicly displaying her deep sense of loss.

There were specific stages of mourning; beginning with deep (or full) mourning immediately following her husband’s death. It was to last a year and a day, and she was expected to dress entirely in black during that period. She also was expected to limit her social activities with the exception of church attendance.

Full mourning required a wardrobe of black crepe, wool or other dull fabric that did not reflect any light. All her accessories must be black, including her gloves, stockings, hats and parasols. This attire was often referred to as “widow’s weeds”. The one exception to the rule of black was undergarments since the dyes were unstable and could stain skin. Many women sewed a large black band on their white petticoats, in the event that her skirt lifted, not even a hint of white should show. Women were also required to wear a bonnet with a “weeping veil”, which was made of sheer crepe or silk and would reach to mid-calf. When out in public, the widow was expected to use the veil to cover her face.

During deep mourning a widow didn’t wear jewelry, but after the year and one day, she proceeded into half-mourning. At that point she could begin wearing mourning jewelry, especially black jet or hair jewelry. This is the macabre part, because hair jewelry was made from the deceased’s hair, woven into pins, pendants or other jewelry.

Half-mourning allowed for gradually easing into wearing other colors: grey, mauve, purple, lavender, lilac and white could be worn. In the late 1800’s, burgundy and subtle prints began to become popular as half-mourning alternatives.

In my book, Promise Me, Amanda Wainwright is the widow of a wealthy man. She arrives in Willow Creek Montana on a mission to fulfill a deathbed promise to her husband.

“Mud.” Amanda Wainwright sighed deeply as she gazed out the carriage window. “This whole town is brown and gray and covered in mud.”
She was alone in the carriage, so no one answered her. Lately, she’d taken to talking to herself to fill in the blanks and alleviate the loneliness. People might think her a bit daft, or maybe eccentric, if they heard her. Rich widows were allowed to be eccentric, weren’t they?

She touched the black veiling on the bonnet perched next to her. She hated widow’s weeds; each glimpse of herself reminded her she was completely and utterly alone.

Amanda took a deep breath; she needed to prepare herself for the days ahead. She still felt inadequate for the task Arthur had charged to her upon his deathbed. Her dying husband had begged her to make things right for the workers who had sacrificed so much of their lives to make him a rich man. The sour stench of sickness and death had hung over him when he’d extracted the promise from her. She’d vowed to create the Miner’s Benevolent Association for the workforce in his mines.

She twisted her black gloved hands nervously and sighed. It seemed an impossible task. She’d never had any responsibility other than directing servants and being an obedient daughter and wife. What did she know of miners and their problems?

The carriage halted, and Amanda stretched the muscles that had cramped on the long trip into the mountains. Snatching the despised hat, she set it upon her head and spread the heavy veiling across her shoulders to shield her face. The door opened and her driver nodded to her politely.

“We’re here, ma’am.”

Amanda wrapped the ribbons of her black, beaded bag around her thin wrist and held out a gloved hand. The man assisted her to the ground, and mud oozed over the toes of her boots. Lifting the hem of her bombazine gown, she walked to the steps and into the Parmeter House.

Amanda stood at the polished wood counter and waited patiently. A few minutes passed before a tall woman in a dark gray dress bustled out a doorway and paused to give Amanda a warm smile.

“Land sakes, you must be the Widder Wainwright.”

Amanda’s face grew hot. She hated being identified as the surviving mate of a dead man.

This is an image from a great website I found:

I'm thinking of having an outfit created by this talented seamstress, for my book events.
Deborah Schneider

Promise Me - Coming in 2009 from The Wild Rose Press


Lauri said...

Wow, Deborah, I never knew that about mourning (hair) jewelry! That is a little too creepy for me.

Great excerpt, look forward to more!

Celia Yeary said...

By all means, have a dress made and wear it to your book signings. I'm having a "tea party" at my house instead of a book-signing at a store--my husband doesn't yet know what he's in for. One young woman I know is going to arrive dressed as a cowgirl! I can hardly wait.
Your article was very good--and accurate. I learned that many wpmen suffered from some sort of kidney ailments becasue they didn't use the bathroom enough--too difficult with all those clothes on--and not just window's either. Amazing. Aren't we lucky? Great excerpt, too! Celia

Celia Yeary said...

Wouldn't you love it if your responders proofed their posts! Sorry I made so many errors--I'm in a rush--Celia

Deborah Schneider said...

Thank you Celia and Lauri!
I agree with you Lauri, that hair jewelry thing is just too creepy for me too.

Celia, I love your tea party idea!
I had a book release party for "Beneath a Silver Moon" at a local restaurant owned by a friend. All the staff dressed in costumes (dance hall girls mostly) and many of my guests dressed up too. It was a blast! You can see my friend Charlie Williams aka: The Noiseguy ( if you need a good laugh) stealing my book on my website blog.

I've already hired a band for my release party (and Kegger). You kinda get the drift on that one.

I don't worry about spelling -- isn't that what we have editors for? (Sorry Helen). :-)

Paty Jager said...

Wonderful information and a great excerpt, Deborah!

Tanya Hanson said...

Congrats on the great excerpt.

I really enjoyed this post. I keep on seeing Scarlett O'Hara's horror when Charles died and she couldn't wear anything pretty.

I have seen Victorian hair jewelry on display, and it is quite lovely albeit macabre. There's usually a collection of it featured at our county fair.