Written by Samantha Watson
Mourning attire has evolved throughout history, but one thing that has been consistent in western civilizations is the color black.
The clothing we wear when we mourn is influenced by culture, religion, and even powerful individuals from history. And though it has evolved, the trend from thousands of years ago to wear black while mourning is still in practice today.
Let’s take a look at some of the history:
Ancient Rome is the earliest recorded instance of wearing black to mourn. The toga pulla, which means dark toga, was the type of clothing worn by mourners. Toga pullas also sometimes were worn in times of private danger or public anxiety, or even during protests.
Middle Ages and Renaissance
During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, black mourning attire was worn by aristocrats and royals for both personal loss as well as general loss, such as after the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Women and widows wore distinctive black caps and veils, and all mourning dress was heavily regulated and monitored to fit a strict dress code.
In some countries in Europe, widows were expected to wear mourning attire for the remainder of their lives.
When her husband Prince Albert died in 1861, Queen Victoria wore black every day until her death 40 years later. Though up until now it had only been aristocrats and royals who wore mourning attire, Queen Victoria’s intense mourning created a trend among all social classes.
Virtually everyone else in the U.K. and the U.S. began wearing black following the death of a loved one. If they could not afford black clothing, they simply dyed their regular clothes black.
By the end of the Victorian Era, mourning attire was a well-organized production. Prayer books and bibles had to be bound in black leather, handkerchiefs were edged in black, black ribbons were tied to infant clothing, and nearly every piece of clothing was covered in black crape, a fabric that resembled a crimped, stiff gauze.
For widows, mourning was an especially theatrical production. For the first year and a day of mourning, their clothing was covered in black crape. The following nine months, the crape was partially removed. After that, the crape was removed and a widow could wear fancier black fabrics like velvet and silk, with trimmings of lace and ribbons if they wish.
The last six months of mourning were considered half mourning, and widows could gradually begin wearing subdued shades of other colors. In total, the mourning period for widows lasted two and a half years.
For widowers and other family members, the mourning periods were much lesser. However, there were still standards for how long they were required to mourn.
A stop to the excessive mourning standards came with the end of the Great War because of the amount of people who died in battle. Slowly, the length of the mourning process, including the rules for attire, began to taper off.
By 1980, the custom of wearing black for weeks, months, or years had ceased for a majority of the population. Today, it’s fairly common for friends and family to wear black only when attending a funeral or other service. While some continue wearing black for a few days, it’s not a requirement or standard.
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