Mouring in the Victorian Era
by Heather Rothman

The actions of Victorians upon a death is a intricate web of rituals and etiquette. In Vanity Fair, William Thackeray gives modern readers a brief glimpse into deep mourning through Amelia Sedley-Osborne.

The idea of deep mourning was introduced by Queen Victoria upon the death of her husband, King Albert, who died of typhoid in 1861. At that time and for forty years after(the time of her death), the Queen mourned the loss of her beloved husband. She commanded her court to dress in mourning with her for the first three years post-mortem. Because of the Queen's extreme actions, the Victorians elected to mimic her ethics. After her death, the world came out of mourning and began to change fashion, which began the Edwardian Period.

Death was a commonplace occurrence in the Victorian Age. "Three of every twenty babies died before their first birthday, and those who survived infancy had a life expectancy of only forty-two years" (Douglas) Death would take place most often in the home. When a death occurs, the entire house stops and takes up deep mourning. Windows are closed. Clocks are stopped. Mirrors were covered. Mirrors were covered because it was believed that a mirror, or reflective surface, could because trapped in it. Bodies would be stored in homes until they were buried. Poor families in their small houses would have to kept the dead in the same quarters as the living until the time of the funeral had arrived. Even children were not sheltered from the deaths around them. They were instructed at all ages on the meaning of death and its rituals. As the Industrial Revolution developed, Middle Class and proper etiquette were defined. Rules and regulations of what was proper was decided in every aspect of life, including that of proper death procedures and funeral rites. It was considered quite a scandal if any of the rituals were broken.

The Procession to the burial site was a spectacle. Until the 1870's, funerals and their processions were elaborate and expensive. Victorians having "to secure a 'decent' burial for family members was characteristic of all classes in Victorian society, even if it meant hardship for the surviving family members. The ultimate disgrace was to be assigned a pauper's grave" (Douglas). Some would even hire mourners, called "mutes," to follow the processional and weep. Into the 1870's, or the end of World War 1, funerals became cheaper and more modest. "The huge numbers of soldiers who died and were buried overseas as well as the resultant collective grief made grand funerals and individual displays of mourning at home seem inappropriate and self-indulgent" (Death).

Many objects were used to remember the deceased post-mortem. "Mementos such as lockets, brooches and rings, usually containing a lock of hair and photograph, functioned as tangible reminders of the deceased" (Hell). Framed pictures were often used as a substitute for the lost member. They were considered tangible objects and often all that was left the grieving. "The invention of the Carte de Visite, which enabled multiple prints to be made from a single negative, meant that images could be sent to distant relatives. The deceased was commonly represented as though they were peacefully sleeping rather than dead, although at other times the body was posed to look alive" (Hell).

Mourning Clothing
Mourning attire was a distinct way to show wealth and status. A household would often command the entire house hold to dress in mourning in black. "It is also said that wearing black for mourning comes from a Roman idea; the mourners could prevent being haunted from the ghost of the deceased by cloaking themselves in black" (Hell). "Middle and lower class women would go to great lengths to appear fashionable in times of mourning. Dying clothing black and then bleaching them out again was quite common. The industry of mourning became so vital to tailors that rumors were spread concerning the bad luck of recycling funeral attire (Hell).

Mourning attire for women included all of the attire including jewelry, hair accessories, stationary, purses, fans, and other objects. Men often added mere gloves or a hat to symbolize their mourning. "The material most associated with mourning was black silk crepe, which was almost exclusively manufactured by one company, Courtauld's. Crepe had a flat, lifeless quality - lustrous materials like furs, satin and velvet were forbidden" (Weston). If one were to wear color before the prescribed time, they were considered immoral and odious. If one maintained crepe after the prescribed time, they were considered unlucky.

Mourning was also very expensive for all Victorians. It had to be fashionable. Many times after a period of mourning, the normal wardrobe would be out of fashion and a great deal of new clothing had to be bought. If more than one death happened in a short period of time, the mourning clothing would have to be worn for a great deal of time. If they became too dingy, the mourning clothing would have to be replaced, which also could cause a great deal of spending.

Mourning attire was essentially localized on the widow. It was intended to neutralize all interacts of the widow with society just as the Queen had done. It was expected that a widow would never leave her home without full black attire and weeping veil for the first full year. Her socials agenda was church related only.

"A full widow's weeds (archaic word for garment) in the mid 19th century required a crepe dress with a plain collar and broad weepers cuffs made of white muslin, a bombazine mantle (cloak), and a crepe bonnet with veil for outdoors. A widow's cap was for indoor use" (Hell).

Widows were expected to mourn for a minimum of two years. The first year and a day, or the deep mourning, the widow would be covered from head to toe in black, including a black weeping veil. After this time, if the woman had no children and no income, she could marry again. Next was the secondary mourning, which was the last six months of the second year were the widow could remove the heavier mourning attire, including the veil. Small amounts of trim and color can be added to the dress, but the lack luster black dress remains. The last nine months of the mourn was call half mourning. During this time, in a very slow process, the colors of gray, white, lavender, soft mauves, and the continual black could be worn. Jewelry can be worn again at this time.


Works Cited

"Death: the Last Taboo." Victorian Era. Australian Museum. 2004. <>.

Douglas, Anne. Victorian Mourning Customs. Pagewise, Inc. 2002 <>.

Hell, Kyshah. "Victorian Mourning Garb." Morbid Outlook. <>.

"Victorian Mourning." Webster Dictionary. 1931. <>.

Weston, Pauline. Mourning Fashion History. Fashion-era. <>.