Mourning In The 1850s

Mourning In The 1850s

In the 1850s, three stages of mourning were worn: Deep mourning, second mourning and half mourning – each stage had its own requirements. Women had to dress accordingly in order not to become a social outcast. Mourning was less strict for working men, whereas young men usually wore mourning as long as women.

Close or deep mourning was worn for the nearest relations: husband, parents, child and siblings. Usually, a lusterless black dress with long black crape veil over the face and reaching the skirt hem at the back. Second mourning was worn for distant relatives or by those who have previously worn deep mourning. The usual dress was made of black silk, worn with a black demi-veil or without a veil. In half mourning, colors may be worn: such as lavender, grey and purple.

The mourning etiquette in England was very strict, while in the US it was less rigid, sometimes mourning wear was even ‘dressy’ or ‘showy’. So keep in mind that some of the dresses described in Godey’s Lady’s Book might be too dressy for mourning wear in England or other countries.

Deep mourning

Victorian deep mourning: black, white lace collar, violet locket, roses, pearls
Victorian handsewn lace collar

A widow always wears deep mourning, and some wear it for the loss of a parent, sibling or child. The signs of deepest mourning are a black lusterless dress, a black bonnet trimmed with black crape and a black crape veil worn over the face. Deep hems on veils and coats are also characteristic for deep mourning. Because there can’t be much variety in deep mourning dresses, ‘neatness is considered its principal elegance’. (Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1854, p. 190)

In the first six month, some mourners don’t wear anything white: collar, cuffs, undersleeves, sometimes even underwear (underwear was usually white in the mid-Victorian era). All mourners ‘in first mourning [except the widow, see below] are indeed in deep black’.

In Philadelphia, deep mourning is plain and veils are worn for a longer time, while mourning in New York is rather ‘showy’, so that even deep mourning dresses are trimmed with jet, beads, crape flowers and feathers. (Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1857, p. 192)

Some US mothers who mourn for their lost child choose to wear ‘white or soft neutral tints’ instead of black (Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1857, p. 286).

Victorian widow weeds

Deep Mourning of a Widow

‘A widow’s mourning, though, strange to say, is the only close black relieved by any white for the past year or two. Fashion graciously permits her a close white cap about the face, “a widow’s cap” as it is called, of plain lawn or muslin as a double border, formed by two extremely narrow puffs of the same, slightly rounded by passing a rod through when newly made or “done up”. This is not generally adopted, as yet, in our own country [USA], though many wear them; but bonnet caps in the same style are as universal for widows as a double crape veil.’ (Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1857, p. 192)


A widow’s double crape veil is worn for twelve month over the face. After a year, she may wear a demi-veil (shorter at the back and no longer over the face) or choose to ‘go on blinding and stifling herself’ and wear the long veil over her face for further three to five years.

‘Others in deep mourning wear a single thickness and width, about a yard, ordinarily, and two yards long.’

A mourning veil is secured by two black veil pins on each side of the bonnet, or it is tied with attached strings. (Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1857, p. 192)

Victorian white undersleeve eyelet lace

Dress Materials

‘The principle dress fabrics are bombazine, Tamese cloth, alpacca with bombazine finish, Canton cloth […] plain merino, cashmere, and mouselline are also used for the house or street.’ In summer, lighter dress fabrics are chosen, such as barège (a cross-barred fabric) and grenadine. Morning dresses (which are worn at home, for housework etc.) are made of plaids, printed mousselines, chintzes and ginghams.

Travelling dresses are made of serges, mohair, etc. ‘For morning or travelling dresses, where crape would soon spot or rust, plain Mantua ribbon, of one broad or several narrow width, is much used; also a variety of galloons and braids manufactured expressly for this department.’ (Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1857, p. 192)


A close black tarlatan or muslin cap with crimped border is worn for at least a year. In 1858: ‘Plain white lace quillings are admitted as bonnet caps in the deepest black’ instead of the ‘quilled crape of the past three years’. (Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1858, p. 572)

‘Black crape collars are worn by all, lightened with thulle insertions and frills, if the taste inclines to display, rather than simple severity.’ (Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1857, p. 192)

‘Undersleeves are of crape, tissue, or grenadine.’

Cambric handkerchief are either with a plain broad hem or a printed black border. ‘An embroidered pocket handkerchief would be as much out of taste as a Valenciennes collar.’

Victorian mourning: watch, rose petals, lace


Bonnets are of crape, or bombazine with or without crape trimming. For summer wear, crape-covered black straw bonnets or double crape bonnets ‘over a light wire foundation covered by silk. (Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1858, p. 572) Bonnet strings are made with black ribbon or double crape. A ruched black tulle cap is worn under the bonnet.

Black cloth cloaks with a double row or stitching, crape-trimmed bombazine mantles and Thibet cloth shawls with ribbon binding or fringe. In February and March, a sack or knitted worsted Sontag may be worn underneath for additional warmth. In 1858, unlined crape-trimmed bombazine summer mantles, or lusterless silk mantles with net yoke and flounce (Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1858, p. 572).


‘As a principle of taste, ornaments used in mourning should be few and plain’: such as a jet or jet imitation brooch or bracelet, or a plain gold brooch with black enamel. ‘The oval brooch for hair is frequently the only ornament worn. This is usually surrounded by a rim of small jet, and many have an outer rim of pearls.’ (Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1857, p. 192)

1850s mourning: lace handkerchief, locket with violets, Victorian onyx earrings

Extant Dresses, Photographs and Fashion Plates

Picture of 1850s mourning dress. Mourning dress of dull fabric. Sheer black dress of dull fabric.

Photograph of woman in dull black dress with black collar, white cap, and with brooch.

1850 fashion plate of a widow with veil. 1852 fashion plate of a woman in black with black day cap.

Extant Accessories

1860s mournig veil with deep hem. 1857 mourning cap. Black net day cap. Crape covered mourning parasol. Instructions for a netted mourning cap (Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1858, p. 66). Victorian mourning jewelry

Second mourning

Victorian mourning: crape silk and wool
Crape, silk and wool

Second mourning is worn for a distant relative or by those who have previously worn deep mourning (Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1857, p. 192). The usual mark of second mourning is laying aside the veil altogether or exchanging it for a […] demi-veil’ (Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1859, p. 287). In the US, there’s less distinction between second mourning and half mourning, while in England both stages are very different. A second mourning dress is usually a black silk dress trimmed with black crape.


No veil or a ‘demi-veil, of thulle, grenadine, or net, with round corners, and a border of crape or thulle’ (Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1859, p. 287)

Demi-veils of Brussels net with round corners and ‘with a ruche of black crape, lightened by another of black illusion, being placed underneath’. (Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1858, p. 192)

Dress Materials

Fabrics may be ‘plain or in small bars, cheques, and “Bayadere stripes”‘ (horizontal stripes) (Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1859, p. 287)

Black watered silk dress with ‘richly worked’ muslin jacket. Plain black silk dress with flounced skirt: each flounce trimmed with a chequered pattern of tulle and velvet and chenille fringe. (Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1855, p. 478)

Victorian mourning black figured silk pearl necklace roses


Collars and undersleeves of white tarlatan or cambric (Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1857, p. 574) or even ‘plain lace’ (Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1858, p. 192).

Black net headdress embroidered with black bugles and black beads (Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1859, p. 354).


‘Mixed straws, gray chips, white chips, trimmed with black and white ribbons, Neapolitans, and crapes are among the favorite bonnets. Ruches of ribbon or crape’ are used as trimmings (Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1858, p. 192).

Black crape-trimmed silk mantles (Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1857, p. 574).

Victorian mourning: black, white lace, gold onyx brooch, locket, pearls
Antique Victorian onyx and gold brooch

Extant Dresses, Photographs and Fashion Plates

Shiny black silk dress. 1850s shiny black silk plaid dress. Shiny silk taffeta gown with flounces. Picture of shiny black silk dress. Black silk moire gown trimmed with velvet. Silk damask gown. Shiny black silk dress trimmed with crape.

Photograph of woman in demi-veil, wearing shiny gloves and shiny bonnet ties, mantle trimmed with ruches. Photograph of woman in lusterless dress and mantle, trimmed with shiny fabric, bonnet without veil. Photograph of woman in plain dress with mantle. 1850s photograph of two ladies in mourning.

1851 mourning attire. Painting of black silk dress trimmed with frills.

1851 fashion plate of second mourning dress.

Extant Accessories

1850s trimmed black mourning parasol.

Half mourning

victorian half mourning colors gray lead purple lavender
Half-mourning colors: Grey, purple and lavender

Color is coming back at last! However, the change from black to color should be made gradually: First, the black dress and bonnet is trimmed with colored ribbons, later, colored dresses may be worn. Colors for half-mourning are: lavender, purple, grey, black and white, and sometimes blood-red.

In the US, light mourning wear, especially black and white, is hardly distinguishable from other fashionable dresses. ‘Every shade of lavender is called into requisition in ribbons, silks, indeed all dress fabrics.’ Even lace mantles are worn in half mourning. (Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1857, p. 574) In 1858, rather black and white is worn, than violet or lavender and black. ‘In fact, purple and lavender, are not now considered mourning at all, and never have been really so, though admitted to general wear the past five years.’ (Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1858, p. 192)

victorian mourning locket with violets lavender white lace collar
Lavender quilted petticoat

Dress Materials

A variety of material and colours may be worn: lead and stone colour, lavender and deep purple (Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1854, p. 190). ‘Gray cloths, whether Lavella, mousselines, Madonna, or silk tissues – and stripes, plaids, and figures of black on a white ground, or white on a black ground, are the most desirable.’ (Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1858, p. 192) Also silks, such as glacee, foulards and chinee; and grenadines and organdies in summer.

Slate-coloured flounced taffeta dress trimmed with black moire antique bands (Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1855, p. 192). Pearl-coloured reps silk dress trimmed with ruches of ribbon (Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1856, p. 383).


Black crape collar trimmed with seed beads and bugles (Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1857, p. 357).

Crocheted mourning bracelet with black beads, in ‘all black, or gray and black’ (Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1855, p. 264).

‘White tulle cap, trimmed with crape ribbon’ (Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1855, p. 192). White tulle cap with pale lavender ribbons (Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1855, p. 192).

‘Black lace bonnet; black parasol and gloves’ (worn with a black silk walking dress). ‘White chip bonnet, trimmed with white ribbon and flowers; white kid gloves; fancy white parasol’ (worn with a gray silk dress). (Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1855, p. 192) Gray silk bonnet, trimmed with black lace and velvet, with white ruche inside the brim and violet and black ribbon ties (Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1856, p. 383).

Victorian brooch, lace, violet locket, roses, pearls
1920s bobbinet tulle and Maline lace collar


A black velvet mantle and close velvet bonnet (worn with a black silk dress) is one of the most truly elegant costumes’ (Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1853, p. 92).

Coats trimmed with chinchilla fur (Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1856, p. 68).

Extant Dresses and Fashion Plates

Picture of shiny black silk dress trimmed with velvet. Grey and purple plaid gown. Lavender gown. Gray and black plaid gown.

1853 fashion plate of black dress trimmed with purple.

Extant Accessories

Drawn gray silk bonnet. Gray plaid half-mourning shawl. Half mourning straw bonnet trimmed with purple ribbon and black tulle.

Locket, pearls, roses, Victorian lace
Victorian Limerick lace day cap

How long should one mourn?

How long mourning should be worn hasn’t changed between the 1840s and the 1860s. Here you’ll find how long mourning was worn in the 1840s which was published in 1840 in ‘The Workwoman’s Guide’. And here you’ll find how long mourning was worn in the 1860s which was published in the 1870s in ‘The Bazar Book of Decorum: The Care of the Person, Manners, Etiquette, and Ceremonials’.

About Mourning Clothes in General

Mourning clothes can be bought in ‘mourning stores’ in all large towns and cities: Jackson’s in New York, Beeson and Son in Philadelphia. ‘Beside these and similar places, nearly all large dry-goods houses, such as Stewart’s, Arnold’s, Evan’s, Levy’s, Sharpless’, etc. etc., have a “mourning department,” where materials may be purchased.’

The first essential in buying mourning clothes is a ‘good shade of black, neither blue nor rusty; a dead, solid color is considered most desirable.’ Dress, mantle, and bonnet should be of the same fabric, either bombazine or silk. Cashemeres and mousselines wear better than bombazine. Don’t buy cheap black fabric. Black English chintz morning dresses ‘fade very little in washing’. Lead-coloured lining is used for thick materials, whereas black linen or black silk covered lining is used for thin materials. Black cambric lining and black lawn dresses will stain the skin. Mourning dresses should be trimmed very little, and rather with tucks than ruffles. For traveling, grey dresses are worn because of the dust (even in deep mourning). A grey silk and linen fabric trimmed with black braid is best for this purpose. (Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1854, p. 190) Crape trimming, in shell, diamond or honeycomb pattern, in different width can be bought at any trimmings store (Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1859, p. 287).

Mourning in the Victorian era
White tulle lace collar and cuffs

More about Mourning

9 thoughts on “Mourning In The 1850s

  1. Did women in mourning in the Victorian era go out to social events in the evening? If so, is there any evidence that they wore off-the-shoulder dress whilst still in mourning? Thanks.

    1. Hi, thanks for your comment. 🙂 Widows in deep mourning didn’t go out at all. Widows or women in second mourning might visit close friends, but they’d wear their usual black silk mourning dress with long sleeves and maybe even a veil. As soon as women wore half mourning, they could attend a ball and wear off-the-shoulder ball gowns but they’d probably not dance.

      However not all women followed the mourning customs, as this quotation shows: ‘We quarrel with the fashion […] that puts on black for a third cousin, because becoming, and lays it aside at Newport for a fancy ball’ (Godey’s magazine, 1857).

      Descriptions of two evening dresses for mourning wear: ‘Black grenedine dress, made over black silk’. ‘Lavender grenedine robe-dress; embroidered collar and sleeves; black velvet on the hair and wrists.’ (Godey’s magazine, 1855)

      And in England, it was ‘fashionable’ for women (not in mourning) to wear black (off-the-shoulder) ball dresses after the death of prince Albert. It was a sign of sympathetic mourning and – because Queen Victoria wore black – black became a fashionable color even for evening and ball gowns. Here’s a picture of a black silk off-the-shoulder dress (at the end of the page).

      1. Amazing info, thanks so much for that. Regarding woman in the first stages of mourning, or even as you mentioned in second stages where they may visit close friends or relatives, what about the numerous amount of photos taken of women in all stages of mourning, it was obviously considered acceptable to visit a photographic studio while in mourning? One final question, this 1850’s photo is often described by many as a woman in mourning attire. I don’t believe that’s true. The outfit seems much too flashy for mourning wear, and this dress may not even be black, considering that certain colours often turned out black in a b&w photo. What are your thoughts?

        1. Interesting question. I haven’t found a reference if a woman might go to a photographic studio while in deep mourning. I think if it’s an upper-class woman the photos were taken in her home/ at her estate, and if it’s a middle-class woman she’d have to go to the butcher etc. even in deep mourning, so she could also go to a photographic studio to have her picture taken. Or maybe some of the photos were taken when the woman was in second mourning and put on her deep mourning just for the photo.

          I think you’re right about the photo that the woman isn’t in mourning and that it’s probably a colored ball gown. But it’s unusual that the background is hand-tinted, not the dress, jewelry or skin. So probably it’s a fine-art photograph – trying to depict the mood rather than the woman or dress. The photo is taken by Southworth and Hawes who often took artistic photos, such as this portrait – the Met says about it: few ‘American daguerreotypists rarely even hinted at nudity’. And Southworth and Hawes even took photographs of operating rooms (source).

          I also found more pictures of mid-Victorian off-the-shoulder dresses: two 1848 dresses for half-mourning, 1850s sheer black crape mourning dress and 1859 black lace evening dress – not a mourning dress because lace was usually not worn in mourning.

      1. Thank you!! I have another question:

        The Ladies’ Book of Etiquette says that “the only appropriate trimming is a deep fold, either of the same material [as the dress] or of crape.” I am very new to sewing, and a Google search couldn’t tell me what exactly was meant by said “deep fold.” Do you know?

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