In Antique Clothing Black is Beautiful
by Cathy Taylor
When shopping antique clothing racks, people see a lot of black. From the 20th century, they see little black dresses, trimmed black felt hats, black velvet evening coats, beaded black bags. And from Victorian times, they see little feathered black bonnets, boned black bodices, black silk shirtwaists.
Sometimes customers complain about all the black: they admire the styles, but weren’t these worn at a funeral? Victorian black antique clothing still carries connotations of gloom and severity, and sooner or later the subject of mourning and widows comes up.
Victorian mourning customs got a lot of press in the 20th century. Everybody who’s read Gone With the Wind has the idea that mourners, especially widows, were subject to stringent expectations for proper dress and behavior. But like any cliché, our image of Victorian mourning always needs re-examination. Gone With the Wind portrayed pre-Civil War Southern plantation owners, a class of people determined to imitate the nobility of Europe in all things, including mourning customs; behavior was by no means consistent or universal.
Does mourning account for most of the black antique clothing that survive from the last century? Probably not, any more than weddings account for most Edwardian white dresses. At least it’s not safe to assume that any black antique clothing garment we come across was made for mourning, although it might have appeared at a lot of funerals.
John Morley wrote in his book, Death, Heaven and the Victorians (Studio Vista,London,1971), that surviving Victorian mourning garments were already rare, even in Britain, where formalized respect for the dead had been fiercely enforced in Victorian times. To qualify as a specialized mourning article, an antique clothing garment had to be more than black; it had to fulfill the rules of etiquette and the expectations of neighbors, especially for widows and close family members.
Bill Kepler researches rites of passage and other mid-19th-century behaviors. He and other members of the Living History Society, a Twin-City-based group that represents Victorian life at historic events, festivals and re-enactments, have given presentations on “The Victorian Way of Death” for groups such as the North Star Chapter of the Victorian Society in America.
Victorian mourning culture did not arise from a morbid fascination with death, Kepler points out. It was the 19th-century way of handling a part of life we don’t even want to acknowledge now. “Today, social pressure runs against public displays of grief. Then, there was social pressure to make grief public. If anyone didn’t mourn, it was taken as a lack of respect.”
Wearing of sorrowful colors and materials during mourning went back to sackcloth and ashes in ancient times. Victorians inherited something of 18th-century mourning style, which involved wearing black with specialized accessories on the death of a relative or community leader. Georgian etiquette books prescribed a mourning period in terms of weeks or days.
Early Americans emulated English customs, and 19th-century English Romanticism intensified feelings and behavior about death and dying on both sides of the Atlantic. Queen Victoria, the model for upper and middle-class behavior, mourned her consort, Prince Albert, for the last 40 years of her life. The British and Americans tried to follow her example.
In America, the 19th century was a time of blindingly rapid change, rising cities, floods of immigration, and extreme stress on the ordinary American. People looked for things to hang onto and fixed on traditions such as mourning. “Death became less uncomfortable,” said Kepler. It was a good thing that the dead had moved beyond the stresses of life, and survivors were to console themselves with elaborate rituals and special modes of dress.
Kepler said he found no documentation of specialized mourning garments for men except the baldric, a wide sash tied over one shoulder. This could be worn the day of a funeral and possibly the day after. Then a man, as breadwinner, had to get on with life and resume his working uniform, which in the city was apt to be black anyway.
White had a funerary significance that is largely forgotten today. Children ‘s mourning wear was likely to be white, and white baldrics might be worn at the funerals of children. We will never know how many white 19th-century children’s garments we find were originally made for mourning, unless they’re trimmed in black. The children’s mourning time was short with few prescribed rules. It was the woman, guardian of the home, tradition and all that was sacred, who was expected to act out the family’s sorrow and wear its livery.
In the ideal world of the etiquette books, the woman mourner was sequestered at home, and widows went out only to church. The costume showed the length of time since bereavement. The mourning material was crepe (sometimes spelled crape), a silk fabric chemically treated to achieve a crimped surface. Said The Manners of Good Society, 1893:
It goes on like that. There were other regulations for other relatives: parents were mourned for a year, with deep mourning for six months, half-mourning for the last two months, etc. This text was from one British etiquette book probably read by the urban middle and upper classes, who were at least physically close to the Queen.
Geographical and class differences are less documented, Kepler pointed out. Print materials exemplify the behavior of the middle and upper classes in Britain and Eastern American cities. Most average people probably didn’t have the resources or the social pressure to mourn expensively with strict propriety. “Here in Minnesota, mourning customs were less severe because this was on the frontier. What we know are Eastern customs.
“The working class doesn’t write its own history. Widows’ and orphans’ societies were formed, partly to supply proper clothing to those who couldn’t afford it.”
Crepe was favored because it didn’t reflect light; anything shining or sparkling connoted richness and festivity, out of place when honoring the dead. Other dull silky fabrics called bombazine and paramatta were good alternatives, but lacked the scary immediacy of crepe. The French textile company that developed it prospered on its popularity. The widow’s veil, worn over the face when in deep mourning, was conventionally made of crepe, although dress reformers warned that it might threaten health and eyesight.
Crepe would be a fairly sure indicator that an antique garment was for mourning, if there were that much of it left today. With age, crepe developed a rusty look and an ugly odor. Hardly a family would save it if they didn’t have to. Morley writes,“ …it was considered unlucky to have crepe in the house after mourning had ended; this may account somewhat for the enormous sales, and for the present rarity of Victorian mourning wear, which must once have been so common.”
A little trim could emerge on the widow’s costume after a year. Jet was favored for beading and jewelry. A soft, non-glittery fossil stone, it could be worked into symbolic shapes for funerary uses. But jet was valued for a variety of costumes and doesn’t always indicate mourning.
Half-mourning, the last stage, admitted white, gray, lilac and violet to the costume; each had its own meaning in the mourning code. Widows with enough means might segue into “fashionable mourning” as they returned to their place in the social world. “Unmarried girls feared the merry widow, who could move unchaperoned through society,” said Kepler.
“Victoria’s example extended mourning customs longer than they might have lived naturally,” he continued. The Queen had made black fashionable as well as practical, but by the end of the century the upper classes were tiring of it. In the early 1900s the Ladies’ Home Journal, which published mourning fashion pages at least once a year, indicated that regulation mourning dress was disappearing. Women going into later stages of mourning got points for clever use of white trim on hats and costumes. According to Morley, World War I pretty well finished Victorian mourning customs. Sentimental ritual couldn’t make sense of all that mechanized death.
So the relationship of black to mourning was never simple. A lot of black clothing was made in the 19th century, but it’s here for reasons other than mourning. An average woman could expect to have a good dress possibly once in 10 years. If she had any smarts she made it from a strong, long-lasting black fabric. Black was practical and versatile; it could be worn almost everywhere and with everything, and it didn’t show dirt. Even clothes made in other colors could be dyed black to cover spots, fading and alterations as clothes were handed on and worn out. And people never knew when they might have to mourn or attend a funeral, so it was best to be prepared.
Many black clothes finally squeezed into modern times because so many families respected, adapted and saved them. Meanwhile, colorful clothes faded, spotted, outlived their matching pieces and met a ragged fate. Some survive only as swatches memorialized in quilts. The strong, serviceable, middle-class black antique clothing is here today and here tomorrow, because it was made to be.
Into the 1920s and 30s, black marched on. Some older women balked at modern fashions, and went on making their own clothes on more or less Victorian lines, usually in black. As black was seen less and less at funerals, it acquired chic and sophistication for evening. A lot of black evening wear survives from the 20s and 30s, particularly black velvet, which never seems to go out of style and gets saved out of admiration. Coco Chanel’s inspiration, the little black dress, became the staple of the day-into-evening wardrobe. Accessorized for every occasion, it took many a woman through the rationing and privations of World War II. Usually made of synthetics, decorated with beading and sequins, little black dresses from the 40s go to countless World War II anniversaries, swing dances, concerts and parties today.
The many roles of black in fashion history have led to its domination of today’s vintage racks. When we say we’re looking for antique clothing and vintage clothing, we mean we’re looking for the reality, not reproductions, and the high survival rate of black is part of the reality. So we might as well appreciate it for its strength, simplicity and adaptability—the reasons why so much of it was saved.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Cathy Taylor, owner of Victori Limited, is a writer, editor and lecturer on antique and vintage clothing, and on Victorian style and material culture. She is the national newsletter editor for the Costume Society of America. This article first appeared in The Old Times, a regional antiques newspaper based in Minnesota, and is used here with permission. You can find more articles by Cathy and others, plus subscription information at www.theoldtimes.com.