‘It shows the best taste to make mourning as plain and as little fanciful as possible’. (The workwoman’s guide, 1840)
Mourning customs were very strict in the 1840s, especially in England. However, wearing mourning wasn’t a ‘punishment’, mourning clothes helped to protect the feelings of the person in mourning. Every stranger they met would recognize their mourning clothes and wouldn’t hurt the feelings of the mourner with unnecessary jaunty remarks.
1840s mourners knew four stages of mourning: They began with a dull black dress, gradually adding more luster and color, and finally wearing a lavender, purple or scarlet dress in the last mourning stage before they returned to wear colors.
Mourning clothes in the 1840s were still dyed with natural dyes. True black was difficult to dye with natural colors – wool and silk is easier to dye than cotton or linen – and it was prone to color bleeding. Mourning dresses could stain the skin and a shower of rain would ruin the mourning veil. Mourning dresses should also not be stored together with white or colored dresses, as they’d stain them. Mourning clothes could be stored separately in divans (The workwoman’s guide, 1840).
Bombazine and black crape were the two typical mourning fabrics. Bombazine (or bombasine) is a lusterless twilled black silk and wool fabric (silk warp and worsted weft) used for mourning dresses.
Black crape (spelled with ‘a’) is a dull, slightly sheer, creped silk fabric used for mourning veils and and trimmings. Close-up of 1870s black crape fabric. Crape is ‘made of raw silk, gummed, twisted on the mill, and woven without crossing. […] Crape is either crisped [more twisted] or smooth : the former is double, and expresses a deeper mourning; the latter single, and is worn in ordinary epics, or for more distant relations’ (Domestic Encyclopedia Or A Dictionary Of Facts, And Useful Knowledge, 1802). Black crape is strictly for mourning, while crape in other colours is also used for veils or ball dresses. Jet black crape ‘wears well to the last, whereas […] [blue black crape], even when new, does not look handsome’ (The workwoman’s guide, 1840). If one got caught in the rain, crape fabric was ruined.
Since 1841, mourning clothes could be bought at Jay’s London General Mourning Warehouse.
Second stage mourning
Black silk dress trimmed with crape, silk and crape bonnet
Third stage mourning
Plain silk dress, black or white silk or straw bonnet (1846 painting of a widow in shiny black dress and white cap; 1840 plain silk dress; 1845 plain silk dress; 1841 fashion plate of woman in black dress trimmed with velvet and with black cap, 1840s painting of a dress trimmed with velvet and fringe; 1840s painting of a dress trimmed with fur, 1848 fashion plate of a woman wearing a shiny black dress, white collar, cuffs and day cap)
Grey or lavender silk dress, evening dress may also be white silk trimmed with black ornaments, white or lavender silk or straw bonnet (painting of black dress trimmed with grey) (The workwoman’s guide, 1840)
Mourning Dress in Detail
‘Mourning veils are of black crape. They should be made of […] jet black crape, as the blue-black soon wears whitish, and looks shabby. The other, though the most expensive at first, is the best economy in the end. They are made quite plainly, with a broad hem all round – say three-quarters of a nail deep’. (The workwoman’s guide, 1840) Black mourning pins.
Caps are made with ‘borders of white crape, lisse, tulle, or net, with broad hems’ (The workwoman’s guide, 1840). (Picture of an 1840s black crape cap; fashion plate of 1847 mourning dress and black cap; 1848 fashion plate of shiny black silk mourning dress and white cap trimmed with blue)
Collar and Cuffs
Mourning cuffs and collars with a ‘broad hem one nail deep all round’ of muslin, net, lawn, cambric, tulle, white or black crape. Cuffs are ‘sewed upon the sleeve or made to slip over the hand’. ‘If the mourning is very deep, the muslin collar is covered with black crape.’ (The workwoman’s guide, 1840)
For walking, a cape is worn trimmed ‘with black crape gaufiered round the edge a nail deep’. A black silk shawl covered with black crape and lined with black sarsenet (a silk lining fabric) for deepest mourning; or a black silk shawl with one or two nails deep hem of crape (The workwoman’s guide, 1840). Photograph of a woman in mourning with shawl
‘A mourning bag looks well done to imitate lace, worked in black floss silk, and ornamented with black glass and silver beads, disposed in a tasteful and ornamental style’ (The Ladies’ Work-table Book, 1844).
Ordinary petticoats are worn, or sometimes of silk or satin (The workwoman’s guide, 1840)
How long should one mourn?
- husband or wife: 1 – 2 years
- parent, or children (ten years and older): 6 months to 1 year
- siblings: 6 – 8 months
- uncles and aunts, or children (below 10 years): 3 – 6 months (1838 fashion plate mourning for child)
- cousins, uncles and aunts related by marriage: 6 weeks to 3 months
- infants: 6 weeks or more
- distant relations or friends: 3 weeks or more
Young persons, or those in mourning for young persons, ‘frequently wear a good deal of white’.
It’s customary for rich families to put their servants in mourning. For deepest mourning, women servants will be given a stuff or bombazine dress for best wear with muslin collars and caps, two black print or working gowns, a silk bonnet trimmed with crape, a black silk handkerchief, black stockings and gloves. Men servants are given a ‘complete suit of dress and common livery, with hat-bands and shoulder-knots, gloves and stockings.’ (The workwoman’s guide, 1840)
More about Mourning
- Victorian mourning
- Mourning in the 1850s
- My mid-Victorian black wool dress, which can be worn as mourning dress
- Mourning in the 1860s
- Mourning in the 1900s and 1910s
- How to remove stains from mourning clothes in the Victorian era