Wednesday, April 27, 2011

How to Ease Out of Victorian Mourning in Fashion

"A widow had to wear hideous black dresses without even a touch of braid to enliven them, no flower or ribbon or lace or even jewelry, except onyx mourning brooches or necklaces made from the deceased's hair.  And the black crepe veil on her bonnet had to reach to her knees, and only after three years of widowhood could it be shortened to shoulder length."
--Gone with the Wind, Chapter VII 

It's fair to say that "dutiful widow" was not an epithet long attached to Scarlett O'Hara Hamilton (or Scarlett O'Hara Hamilton Kennedy for that matter, but I digress). Thanks to the irresistible allure of a green bonnet, we of course know that Scarlett opted for a scandalously short period in widow's weeds. But what was the conventional path she should have followed to ease out of mourning? Today we're exploring the answer to that question with a look at mourning fashion from the early 1860s.

But before we look at the fashion plates (always the best part!), we'll first get acquainted with the three stages of Victorian mourning dress. There's just one important caveat before we jump in, though: it's important to note that customs for mourning dress tended to vary from region to region throughout the United States. In fact, as late as 1886, Harper's Bazar observed that nothing was "more undecided in the public mind than the etiquette of mourning." This point bears mentioning because the general guidelines for mourning, as described below, are somewhat more lenient that what Margaret Mitchell alludes to Gone with the Wind. So it likely would have taken Scarlett longer to progress through the full stages of mourning dress, which we now bring you without further ado.  

Stages of Victorian Mourning Dress for Widows

Full or deep mourning: Full or deep mourning generally lasted for one year and one day following a husband's death. During this period widows wore all dull black clothing, along with a widow's cap and a knee-length weeping veil of black crepe. Crepe also served as the most common fabric for mourning dresses, thanks to its lusterless appearance. No jewelry was allowed, except for jet. In winter, however, it was permissible for widows to wear dark furs.   

Second mourning: Following a period of deep mourning, widows then progressed into second mourning, which typically lasted for a period of nine months and gradually eased the restrictions of full mourning. Weeping veils could be exchanged for shorter ones and the widow's cap could be dispensed with altogether. A widow could implement fabric trim and mourning jewelry back into her wardrobe. Silk fabric could once again be worn. And while a widow's dresses were still expected to be dull and lusterless, she was allowed to slowly incorporate color, moving away from all black into the acceptable shades of gray, mauve, lavender, and white. No bright colors were yet permitted.  

Half mourning: The last stage of Victorian mourning was half mourning, which generally lasted from three to six months. Richer fabrics could be incorporated as dress trim and all forms of jewelry worn. Following the process started in second mourning, a widow could continue to ease more and more color back into her wardrobe--until she was at last free to resume wearing normal attire and fully reenter society. 

Thus ends our overview of Victorian mourning dress. So knowing this, what dresses should Scarlett have worn to ease her way out of mourning? After the jump, we've collected two second mourning and two half mourning styles from Godey's Lady's Book to give you an idea of the appropriate sartorial path Mrs. Hamilton should have followed. Check them out and let us know what you think. Can you envision Scarlett wearing any of them--or are they simply too dull for Scarlett to entertain? 

Second Mourning 

 Figure 1.                                                                     Figure 2.

Figure 1: Second-mourning costume. Dress of black silk edged by a narrow ruffle and trimmed with two rows of lace and bead insertion. The over-dress is of spotted black lace, worked with beads, and caught up and ornamented by large jet beads. The corsage is low, and finished at the waist by a belt of black velvet edged with jet, and finished with a jet clasp. The sleeves are short, and formed of a full puff of lace over black silk, and ornamented by loops of black velvet. The neck is covered by a fancy fichu of black lace, trimmed with black velvet and beads. Leghorn hat, trimmed with narrow black velvet, steel beads, and short plumes. (Godey's Lady's Book, July 1865)

Figure 2: Evening-dress for second mourning. Lavender-colored silk dress, with three crepe puffs on the edge of the skirt. The over-skirt is a network of fine black chenille, finished with a very rich chenille fringe, which just reaches the crepe puffings on the skirt. The corsage is low, and pointed both back and front. The fichu is formed of white and black lace and lavender ribbons. The coiffure is of black velvet and lavender daisies. (Godey's Lady's Book, May 1864)

Half Mourning

 Figure 3.                                                                     Figure 4.  

Figure 3: Costume for light mourning. Dress of rich black silk, trimmed with thick cord and violet silk. The corsage is made with long coat-tails, edged with cord, and turned over with violet silk. The front of the corsage is of violet silk, arranged to simulate a vest. The edge of the skirt is trimmed with thick cord, and every breadth is cut up and turned back with revers, the space being filled in by violet silk edged with a fluted ruffle. The bonnet is of black silk, covered with figured net, and trimmed with loops of violet velvet. The inside trimming consists of a blonde ruching and a tuft of velvet. (Godey's Lady's Book, October 1865)

Figure 4: Costume for a watering-place, and suitable for half mourning. Black French grenadine dress, made over black silk. White piqué sacque, bound with braid, and trimmed with braid and buttons. Standing collar, with black silk neck-tie. Low-crowned Leghorn hat, bound with black velvet, and decorated with a black velvet bow and black plume. (Godey's Lady's Book, June 1862)

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