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Victorian mourning is often a topic of interest to people because it was extremely elaborate and highly ritualized, and for many people, Victorian mourning represents the epitome of mourning traditions. However, if one is going to be strictly accurate, the trends which people associate with “Victorian mourning” were generally limited to the upper classes of Victorian society, as people in the lower and middle classes generally could not afford the pomp and ceremony of full Victorian mourning. The classic widow's weeds, long veils of crepe, and other elaborate garments associated with mourning in the Victorian era were also generally limited to widows in particular, with other relatives and friends observing less ornate practices in their grief.
Before delving into the specifics of Victorian mourning, it may help to understand the context of Victorian mourning. The Victorian era is named for the British Queen Victoria, who sat on the throne from 1837-1901. In 1861, Victoria's consort, Prince Albert, died, and she went into deep mourning, insisting that the entire court observe elaborate mourning practices until 1864. Victoria herself remained in deep mourning for the rest of her life, setting a trend which the upper classes of Victorian society followed.
In very wealthy households, widows observed an elaborate assortment of mourning traditions. Men, including widowers, generally dressed in somber colors and wore black armbands, hatbands, or gloves to indicate that they were in mourning, while other women might indicate their mourning with varying degrees of dress, depending on their relationship to the deceased. In some cases, families displayed their wealth by outfitting their servants for full mourning; in other instances, servants simply wore black armbands in solidarity with their employers.
Many Victorians died at home, and their bodies were laid out at home and watched until they were buried. Victorian burials were often quite elaborate for the upper classes, with long processions of black carriages drawn by horses wearing huge black plumes. Among the lower classes, the cost of a funeral could be prohibitive, along with the cost of obtaining entirely new garments for the period of mourning, so people often died their garments in an attempt to fit in with the trends of the upper classes and they scrimped and saved for funerals and headstones.
For widows, there were three periods of mourning. In the first, full mourning, a widow was expected to give up most social engagements, emerging from her home for the funeral and to go to church, wearing very plain black garments which included a lengthy “weeping veil” of crape, a crinkly type of silk. Women also wore large sleeves known as weepers, along with black gloves and minimal other accessories. Full mourning was expected to last a year and day; most women in the lower and middle classes could not afford a mourning period of this length, of course, as they often needed to rejoin the workforce or marry to support themselves.
Second mourning lasted three months. Women were permitted to remarry at this point, and they could wear mourning jewelry such as pins made from jet, simple earrings and necklaces, and sometimes hair jewelry, jewelry made with the hair of deceased loved ones. The last period of mourning, half mourning, lasted three to six months; women were allowed to start integrating somber colors like purple and gray into their wardrobes, and they could wear any jewelry they liked.
The rules of Victorian mourning were extremely complex, and many women consulted social guides to ensure that they were doing it right. With the death of Queen Victoria, elaborate mourning traditions also started to go out of fashion, and this trend was enhanced by the fun loving and highly elaborate court of Edward VII, after whom the Edwardian Era was named.