When my father died, I did not wear black to his funeral. I took as much pleasure as I could on that devastating occasion in wearing an outfit that I remembered him complimenting me on once. I did the same at my mother’s funeral. Amid the unspeakable sadness, it brought me a bit of comfort to wear something that I remembered they had liked. We get through the trials of life by finding coping mechanisms that make our pain a little more bearable. And while many may dismiss thoughts of fashion and clothing as shallow at such a time, they can offer a healthy emotional outlet for managing our grief.
Benjamin Franklin famously said in a letter to Jean-Baptiste Leroy in 1789, “Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
Stonewall Jackson's grave, 1866
Death during the 19th century was a common if unwelcome visitor. As with all of the other major life events like weddings and baptisms, special clothing was required. The clothing served as a form of respect for the dead. It played a role in helping individuals deal with grief. Additionally, it promoted social cohesion and quickly conveyed information to strangers about recent events in the wearer’s life. During the Civil War, American women followed the rituals of mourning to different degrees depending on their economic status, age, and inclination. Mourning clothing during the initial stages of grief would typically include black collars, cuffs, and undersleeves and black veiling. Later, laces and trims of a lighter color could be added. In the final stages of mourning, shiny fabrics, lighter fabrics, and jewelry would begin to appear.
Periods of mourning were very specific. A widow was required to mourn for two and a half years for her husband, while widowers mourned for only three months. A mother mourned for one year for a child, children mourned up to two years for parents, and nieces adopted “half-mourning” for three months for an aunt.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is currently hosting a new exhibit called Death Becomes Her – A Century of Mourning Attire (http://www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2014/death-becomes-her). It covers the years from 1815 to 1915 and offers 30 different mourning ensembles. The dominant color used for these mourning clothes is, of course, black, but purple and grey are also seen, as is a striped beige and black dress. Style clearly matters. Both black and beige laces are frequently used on collars, bodices, and trimmings. They are also seen in dainty gloves. Silk taffeta appears to be the most common fabric for the gowns.
It is fascinating to study the clothing in this exhibit, especially the examples from 1850 -- 1870. Clothing, unlike any other element, has a way of encapsulating the subtle and not-so-subtle elements dominant in society at any given time. During the American Civil War, grief was ever-present. Virtually everyone knew someone who had died. Economic strains were constant and growing. Society was changing rapidly and for most, it felt like the very ground was shifting under their feet. Although the demands and shortages of war made it difficult for many to observe full mourning dress and etiquette, clothing for mourning offered a way to remember the dead and observe important societal customs. Interestingly, as long as the rules were followed, embellishment was allowed. Tradition was important, but there was still room for individual expression. Mourning clothing from this period is a potent reminder that, whatever our circumstances or personal tragedies, we all need a creative outlet. One way or another, we usually find one. There is a profound sense of both comfort and triumph in that.