Mourning Dress

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In the twenty-first century, when family funerals are private and black is worn as a fashion color, it is rarely possible to recognize that a person is in mourning. But in the past, family bereavement involved a series of highly visible public rituals. The use of mourning ceremonial and dress was originally a privilege of the royal courts of Europe from the Middle Ages and was regulated by court protocol through sumptuary laws. Over a period of five hundred years, however, the use of mourning dress spread outward to the rest of society.

Court and National Mourning

At royal funerals, the hearse was accompanied for burial by a vast procession of representatives of the nation's power: the bereaved family, the aristocracy, military, church, and merchants—their mourning dress carefully coded to indicate their gender and social rank. The highest in the land, both men and women, wore the longest mourning trains and hoods in expensive dull black wool, with black or white crape or linen trimmings. Lengths of mourning and details of the requisite dress followed strict royal protocol. Widows, always deeply veiled in public, wore mourning for the longest periods.

National mourning was declared on the death of a sovereign or key political figure. This indicated that black clothing had to be worn for a specific period by established society on formal occasions and whenever royalty was present. In the eighteenth century, this could be as long as a year. After the death of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, on 30 March 2002, Buckingham Palace announced ten days of national mourning in Britain.

Eighteenth Century

Efforts to restrict the use of mourning dress to court use had to be abandoned from the late seventeenth century because wealthy European merchant families, determined to copy aristocratic etiquette, defied sumptuary restrictions, paid any fines imposed, and wore versions of court mourning dress as they pleased. Mourning dress for the wealthy became increasingly fashionably styled, with black coats and breeches for men and mantua dresses for women, in black and half-mourning mauve.

The use of mourning dress, also for reasons of social ambition, next spread slowly to the growing middle classes. Demand across Europe thus expanded and was met through the extensive manufacture of dull black mourning wools, black and white silk mourning crapes, and jewelry. Mourning dress was made up by court and private dressmakers and tailors to suit the specific styles required by these widening consumer groups.

Mourning Dress 1850–1914

By the middle of the nineteenth century, the correct fulfillment of the minutiae of family mourning became a coded and very public sign of middle-class social respectability. Etiquette rules escalated. Queen Victoria, widowed at the age of 45 in 1861, wore mourning until her death in 1901. Many other widows and families followed her example, including those of the rising industrial middle classes of Europe and North America.

The weight of participation still fell heavily on widows. A respectable widow wore mourning dress for at least two and a half years after her husband died, while a widower was required only to do so for three months. Other family bereavements were mourned for specific, graduated periods.

Widening the Market

Another reason for this rising tide of mourning wear was its successful commercial exploitation by astute manufacturers who produced etiquette-coded goods priced to suit a wide range of consumers. Thus, from the 1840s, family-mourning dress was provided by couture salons, private dressmakers working at every social level, new department stores, wholesale ready-to-wear manufacturers, and by homemade provision. Speed of supply was essential, encouraging new and well-organized wholesale manufacturing and delivery methods. Advertising struck a balance between enticing wealthy clients and encouraging the less well off. Thus, Myra's Journal of March 1876 reassured middle-class customers that "these extremely cheap clothes will look and wear well, a consideration for those whose means are not unlimited." This heavily feminized cult reached a peak between 1880 and 1900.

Commodification Processes

The vast array of products included widow's weeds (crapeladen bodice, skirt, and cape, with black outdoor bonnet and crape veil), indoor caps, fans, underwear, gloves, black-edged handkerchiefs, and a huge array of mourning jewelry, including black jet and "in memoriam" rings, brooches, and lockets. All of these came in three styles for use in first, second, ordinary, and half mourning. The complexities are epitomized by the finesse of descriptions for half-mourning mauve—"violet," "pansy," "scabious," and "heliotrope," none of which were to be confused with the bright purple fashion shade of "Parma violet." For wealthy women, all mourning dress also had to follow the seasonal shifts of fashion set by Paris. Styles thus went rapidly out of date and had to be replaced.

Etiquette Anxieties and Errors

Advice on all of this was offered to the anxious through books and magazines. Sylvia's Home Journal in 1881 advised, for example, that mothers should wear black without crape for six weeks after the death of the mothersor fathers-in-law of their married children. Aristocratic families were advised always to travel with complete sets of mourning clothes, because they might be required to wear complementary court mourning if a death occurred in any European royal family. This practice is still maintained by the British royal family.

Altering and Making Do

At the other end of society, from the 1840s, many women purchased simpler and secondhand mourning dress. Many dyed and altered garments. Styles were modified in conformity with the less fashionable expectations of local communities. By 1900, through the growth of ready-to-wear production of women's woolen costumes, black clothing was also directed at the better-off working-class consumer. For the poorest the provision of any sort of mourning dress remained a trauma. Many, unable to afford it, even had to rely on the help of neighbors to avoid the public disgrace of a pauper funeral.

Decline of Mourning Dress

The use of black mourning crape declined steadily from the 1880s, and by the 1930s, widows' veils were already out of use except in Catholic countries and royal circles. After World War II, the provision of mourning dress was no longer a specific branch of the ready-to-wear industry. By the early 2000s family funerals had become so discreet that death barely interrupted the routine of life for both women and men alike. There are no longer "norms" of mourning dress—even among royalty. In 2002, Princess Anne's break with correct royal funeral etiquette was extreme and is so far unique. Taking on a male rather than a female role at her grandmother's funeral, she strode in the funeral procession behind the coffin, alongside the male royal mourners, wearing male military uniform complete with trousers and sword.


The cultural functions of mourning dress as well as the styles thus varied across society. Although Fred Davis writes that "the democratization of fashion was furthered, of course, by major technical advances in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in clothing manufacture" (p. 139), the widening commodification of mourning dress by 1900 in fact reenforced existing social differences through the provision of different qualities of mourning garments and the inability of the poor to afford them at all.

Court Mourning, France, fromOrdre Chronologique des Deuils de la Cour, 1765

Widower for wife: total 6 months: first 6 weeks in black wool suit with deep weepers on cuffs; 6 weeks in black suit with silver buckles.

Widow for husband: total 1 year and 6 weeks; first 6 months in black wool trained robe with white trimmings; 6 months in black silk with white crape trimmings, 6 weeks in black and white.

First cousin: total 8 days of ordinary mourning—5 in black and 3 in white.

Translation from Mercier, 1877.

Family Mourning, France, 1876

Widower for wife: total 3 months: black suit with black trimmings.

Widow for husband: total 2.5 years: 1 year and 1 day, black wool and crape; 9 months in black wool with less crape; 3 months in black silk; 6 months in half mourning.

First Cousin: total 6 weeks to 6 months: 3 weeks to 3 months in black silk; 6 weeks to 3 months in half mourning.

Translation from Mercier, 1877

Mourning dress did, however, significantly influence modern processes of garment manufacture, retailing, and consumption. The need for a rapidity of supply helped found department stores and encouraged the wholesale manufacture of women's wear. It enhanced the commercial implementation of the use of sewing machines and early forms of mail order. Mourning etiquette also contributed to the development of early forms of plastic used in imitation of jet jewelry, and finally, the careful niche marketing of mourning dress contributed to the development of modern mass-advertising techniques.

See alsoRoyal and Aristocratic Dress .


Davis, Fred. Fashion Culture and Identity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Mercier, Louis. Le Deuil, sons observation dans tout les temps et dans tous les pays comparée a son observation nos jours. London: P. Douvet, 1877.

Taylor, Lou. Mourning Dress: A Costume and Social History. London: Allen and Unwin, 1983.

Lou Taylor