Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Mourning in the 19th Century

People died a lot  more often in the old days, as we used to say, tongue in cheek. Of course, everyone dies only once, but compared to today, death was more of an ever-present specter. Infant mortality was high, today's childhood diseases and easily-cured ailments were deadly. There was no treatment for many injuries, and little or no concept of infection and transmission of disease. Whereas women today live longer than men on an average, in the past, women frequently died in childbirth or of female problems. It was far more common to find men who had been widowed and remarried, while today, it is usually women who have outlived their spouses.

Mourning customs were varied and many, but most visible in dress. Wearing black at funerals is still common today, but in the 19th century, black was worn for much longer periods. How long depended on the relationship of the mourner to the deceased. The black clothing was an expression of grief on the part of the mourner, the extreme example being Queen Victoria, whose beloved Albert died when she was 40, and who wore black until her death at age 82. It also alerted those around the mourner to be respectful of their situation. After a certain length of time, the mourner would relieve the black clothing with some white accessories, or wear grey or a quiet purple. Jewelry was usually made of jet or a mourning brooch with a memento of the loved one, such as a lock of hair. 

Early 19th century mourning rituals were far less rigid than later on, but the wearing of black was de rigeur.  Ackermann's Repository always included a black mourning dress, or the half-mourning colors in the year's fashion plates, with the model posing in a reflective and sombre manner. November and December of 1817 featured a number of mourning dresses after the death of Princess Charlotte. Her sudden demise brought on a tremendous out-pouring of grief from the public, similar to the response to the death of Princess Diana in 1997. All those in high society were expected to wear black, although it's a bit contradictory to see the descriptions of a black evening dress. You could be sorry Charlotte was dead, but you still had social engagements to attend. A year later, Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III and Princess Charlotte's grandmother died, and the Repository put up new black outfits for winter. 

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