Favorite decades: 1910's, 1800's, 1870's
Favorite artists: Anthony van Dyck, Giovanni Boldini, Henry Fuseli, Thomas Lawrence
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Mourning tiara, 1880’s Bohemia (modern-day Czech Republic), the Victoria & Albert Museum
Jet is the fossilised remains of driftwood. In Britain, the main source is Whitby, in Yorkshire. It became particularly popular in mourning jewellery in the mid 19th century.
The custom of wearing mourning dress was encouraged by Queen Victoria’s prolonged mourning after the death of her husband Albert in 1861. Formal mourning required black crepe or bombazine clothes along with ‘a few trinkets to accentuate the general sombreness of the costume’. This tiara shows that jet or its substitutes was worn at the highest level of society: only those above a certain social class would have had the occasion to wear a tiara. It is interesting that it is made of ‘French jet’, a cast glass substitute for jet. As supplies of jet were not sufficient to keep up with the demand, dark cast glass known as ‘French jet’ or ‘Vauxhall glass’ was often used.
Throwing Off Her Weeds by Richard Redgrave, 1846 UK, the Victoria & Albert Museum
A young widow is impatient to discard her black mourning clothes (known as widow’s weeds) because she has plans to marry again. The seamstress is showing her a lilac-coloured dress, a colour considered appropriate for a woman in the last phase of mourning. At this time, the mourning period for a husband was expected to be at least two years.
Originally the picture included a figure of a soldier, the widow’s new suitor, entering through the doorway. Critics thought this was vulgar, and Redgrave painted the figure out, but he kept a number of other visual clues to suggest that the woman is soon to be married again: there is a bridal bonnet in the hat-box in the foreground, and a sprig of orange blossom (a flower which was usually worn or carried at weddings) on the dressing table.
Portraits by Jacob Maentel and an unknown American artist, ca 1810-25, Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library
I’m actually kind of baffled by the rooster in the boy’s portrait.
Photo of Bessie Emma Miller (1870-1931), sister-in-law of one of my great-uncles, ca 1895 US (North Carolina - Lincoln or Cabarrus County)
Mourning evening dress, 1823-25 Scotland, the Victoria & Albert Museum
This black velvet evening dress was worn Jane Johnstone (1803-1847), niece of William Jardine founder of Hong Kong merchants Jardine, Matheson & Co.
The wide neckline and short sleeves of the dress are typical of fashionable evening wear of the mid 1820s. Although it retains remnants of the high-waisted, neo-classical shape popular at the beginning of the century, its construction shows the move towards the lower waists and fuller skirts of the 1850s. The use of velvet demonstrates the trend for more sumptuous fabrics after the dominance of cotton and muslin in the previous two decades.
The death of Princess Charlotte, the only child of George IV, in childbirth in 1817 plunged the whole country into mourning and set the high standards for mourning dress of this period. Fabrics such as silk and velvet were too shiny to be worn for the first stages of mourning, however, official mourning guidelines issued by the Lord Chamberlain decreed that black velvets and silks were permissible in the third and final stage. This dress would have been worn with an evening turban, long gloves and a pelisse cloak, often lined with chinchilla fur. It is likely that it was a gift from William Jardine and was worn when mourning the death of Jane Johnstone’s grandmother, Elizabeth Johnstone who died in 1825.
Robe, 1795-1800 England, the Victoria & Albert Museum
The cotton weaving and printing industries in Britain expanded greatly during the period 1775-1800. Cotton was a very popular fabric for clothing, from sheer muslins to heavy corduroys. It was part of the wardrobe of all classes. This printed cotton gown of the late 1790s could have been the Sunday best of a working-class woman or the informal morning gown of a wealthy lady. The very high waist and long sleeves are the typical fashion of this period.
Walking dress, 1817-20 UK, the Victoria & Albert Museum
Echoes of military uniform give this walking dress a masculine flourish. The curving satin bands applied to the front of the spencer are reminiscent of the parallel lines of braiding which extended across the breast of many uniforms. Passementerie in the form of crescent-shaped moulds, looped cord and balls covered in floss silk replace the gilt or silver buttons on some regimental coats. The tassels on the collar ends and cuff bands evoke the tassels adorning boots, hats, sashes and cap lines of military accessories. In place of epaulettes, puffed oversleeves composed of linked bows emphasize the shoulder line.
The infusion of military styles into fashionable dress in Britain was largely due to the influence of the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815). Among other factors, contact with foreign troops had a strong impact on civilian as well as regimental dress, and military ornament was translated into stylish trimmings on women’s hats, bodices, spencers and pelisses. The uniforms worn during this period were some of the most elaborate in the history of military dress, and their bright colours, frogging, braid and tassels fuelled the imagination of fashion for years to come.
Although this walking outfit is not based on any particular uniform, some garments closely followed certain styles. The uniform of the hussars, who were light cavalry, was particularly flamboyant as it was derived from Hungarian national dress. In her memoirs, Elizabeth Grant describes the admiration she received when she ‘walked out like a hussar in a dark cloth pelisse trimmed with fur and braided like the coat of a staff-officer, boots to match, and a fur cap set on one side, and kept on the head by means of a cord with long tassels’.