There has been a lot of work done on the Victorian fascination with death, including the Memento Mori post on this blog from way back in the day. All the usual stuff gets brought up: Queen Victoria’s many-decade mourning, hair-jewelry made from the locks of a deceased loved one, the rise of spiritualism and the fraudsters who conned people in believing they could talk to those on the other side–all that jazz.
What we don’t tend to hear too much about is the more practical side of things. Given this obsessed with death, there were very strict rules for mourning, but we don’t always realize just how strict they were. Nowadays, you wear something dark-colored to a funeral, and then resume wearing whatever you want. In the Victorian era, you had to wear different things for different lengths of time depending on the proximity of your relationship with the deceased.
Women also suffered the most from this rather oppressive dress code. Being in mourning was a very visible signal that you weren’t supposed to do certain activities. You were supposed to be solemn and avoid too many social engagements (think of the recently widowed Scarlett O’Hara shocking the hell out of Atlanta society by leading a Virginia reel in her widow’s weeds). Women generally were confined to mourning longer, whereas men tended to wear only a black hatband or armband for a short time.
So whom, when, and how do you mourn? Well, this handy chart will tell you! (Chart courtesy of Judith Flanders’s The Victorian House, pp. 378-380).
The chart is divided up into the four stages of mourning: First Mourning, Second Mourning, Ordinary Mourning, and Half-Mourning. You would have to complete all four (if applicable) before you were allowed to return to wearing whatever you wanted and participating in society normally again.
These are obviously all the mourning dress codes for women exclusively since, as has been discussed, men didn’t have the same restrictions. It also goes without saying that these are the dress codes for middle- and upper-class people. Most of the working classes might have been able to afford to have a single garment dyed, or maybe have afforded an arm band, but few of them were going to have black silk dresses made specifically for the occasion, nor were many of them concerned about when they should start adding in jet jewelry.