For centuries, most western cultures have worn specific clothing to signify they are in mourning. Commonly, these clothes were white, largely because this fabric was most affordable and was what common people had. For the wealthy who could afford dye, they would use purple to set themselves apart. It was not until the Georgian period that black became a popular color for mourners to wear, especially among royalty. One of the most noted turning points in mourning clothing came when Queen Victoria, after the death of her husband Prince Albert in 1861, wore black clothing for the next 40 years of her life. From there, mourning dress took on “a life of its own” (no pun intended) and became an entire industry in and of itself.
The Middle Ages
Death in the Middle Ages was especially universal, as plagues, warfare and malnutrition took their toll. While the act of mourning was not limited to royalty and the aristocracy, sumptuary law regulated mourning dress and who could wear what. Black clothing was used to signify to observers who was in the funeral procession. Those of higher social status wore long black trains or hoods, and widows often wore veils when in public. This practice of wearing black in mourning was not followed by the lower classes until much later, partly due to laws and partly the expense of black dye at the time.
The 18th Century
In the 18th century, mourning dress became more available to the merchant class and thus, more popular a custom. Those who could afford to do so wore any version of mourning dress they pleased, creating extensive demand for the product. While a fashion industry, mourning dress in the 18th century was not meant to be a fashion statement. Mourning dress was to be plain and conservative, not trendy clothing style. This all changed during the Victorian Age, when strict rules governed what and how one presented in mourning dress.
The Victorian Age
The Victorian Age was a true shift for industry as manufacturing technology increased, creating the ability to market mourning dress more effectively. Everywhere one could buy clothing, you would see advertisements for mourning skirts, capes, veils, gloves, fans dresses and more. Cultural rules set forth strict rules and expectations for how people dressed in mourning dressed, particularly women. The availability of ready-to-wear textiles created a trickle-down effect as those in the lower-middle class could now afford simple or second-hand black clothing. This marked a true turning point in the industry of mourning dress. Stores catering to this specific niche, such as Jackson’s Mourning Warehouse in Manhattan were opened. Images of Queen Victoria and other elite in mourning dress were the norm. The Victorian Era was truly the heyday of mourning dress.
The Modern Day
Today, mourning dress is not the norm. While we still wear black to funerals, gone are the days you see a widow in full mourning dress for months or years after the passing of her husband. However, in some countries, especially those ingrained in Catholic tradition, the practice was followed into the early 20th century. In today’s society, you are more likely to see subtle acknowledgements of mourning, such as black armband.
The tradition of mourning dress had an undeniable impact on the garment industry and the traditions we still follow today. The need for ready-to-wear garments, rapid delivery and keeping up with trends helped established department stores and increased the demand for manufacture of women’s clothing. It has also left its clear mark on funeral attire today, as most will wear black to funerals and memorial services. Though we all probably appreciate not needing to wear 7 different garments to express our grief, we can see how mourning clothing provided a type of shield for the bereaved. It was clear, simply at a glance that a person had suffered a terrible loss, and allowed even strangers to offer a quite nod of sympathy.