Favorite decades: 1910's, 1800's, 1870's
Favorite artists: Anthony van Dyck, Giovanni Boldini, Henry Fuseli, Thomas Lawrence
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Carte-de-visite photograph by Maull & Polyblank, 1861 London, Manchester Art Museum
Full length studio portrait of a woman in mourning sitting on a chair in front of a desk. She is wearing a black watered silk dress, skirt hem has a patterned band at the hem, with matching patterned band along sleeve edge and down front on the bodice, trumpet sleeves. Bodice is similar to a zouave jacket. Widow’s cap. Plain background with drape.
Mourning bracelet, 1840-60, McCord Museum
Jewellery made from hair was very popular in the mid-19th century.
Symbols of life, hair has long been associated in many societies with funeral rituals. This piece of mourning jewellery, worn during this period in memory of the deceased, was a reminder of the inevitability of death. However its price, sometimes high, also made it a symbol of social status.
When the hair was that of a friend or living relative, the piece of jewelry was worn as a token of esteem. This one, however, was no doubt made from the hair of a deceased person and worn in his or her memory. Such jewelry was not acceptable during the period of deep mourning, when only jet accessories were permitted.
Hair is a material that can be braided, woven, sown, knotted and coiled to produce all kinds of shapes and patterns. Horsehair was also used for this type of jewelry.
Not all hair jewelry was made by jewellers. Magazines explained to their readers how to make it at home.
This kind of jewelry had existed in Europe since the late 17th century.
Bracelets, necklaces, earrings and watch chains were made of both men’s hair and women’s hair.
Mourning necklace, 1875-1900, McCord Museum
Perhaps surprisingly, mourning became an occasion for increased consumption. It might seem much more natural to expect that the grief associated with the death of a loved one would result in indifference to any form of consumption. But such was not the case in Victorian Canada. Paradoxically this deeply private time gave rise to eminently public rituals. Death imposed a number of rules, the most important of which specified the details of permitted activities and dress. To abide by the constraints of deep mourning, mourning and half-mourning, for example, a widow had to have dresses, shawls, bonnets, gloves, handkerchiefs and underwear in strictly codified colours. For many months, only black jet jewellery was allowed. To those who followed the codes, mourning was a time of heavy spending.
This heavy necklace with a gothic cross and medallions decorated with small flowers, probably pansies, is designed for mourning. It is made of a synthetic material imitating jet, a black stone.
Jet is a precious stone found in abundance near Whitby, England. In the Victorian era, the town had many manufacturers of jet jewellery.
According to the rules of mourning, no jewellery was to be worn in deep mourning, the length of which depended on the degree of relationship to the deceased. Next came mourning, during which only jet was permitted, followed by half-mourning, when either jet or gold could be worn.
The owner of this necklace, who is unknown, was expressing her taste for the gothic, a style much in vogue in the 19th century. She also showed her very Victorian knowledge of the symbolic language of flowers, in which pansies represent thoughts.
Child’s mourning garment, ca 1882 England, the Victoria & Albert Museum
Little girl’s mourning garment, in the form of a short princess-line coat dress made of black grosgrain lined throughout with white cotton. The garment has a rounded neck with a self fabric neckband, and fastens the length of the front with metal hooks and stitched loops. The hem and wrist-length sleeves are finished with vandyke tabs bound and faced with self fabric. The coat is shaped to fit at the waist: it is cut in six pieces, the front two of which have long darts. Lines of stitch holes indicate that two mitred pieces of fabric which were originally positioned at the waist back have been removed.
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.
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)
Robe by Liberty of London, ca 1897 London, the Victoria & Albert Museum
This garment with its full sleeves and long, flowing silhouette owes much of its inspiration to Pre-Raphaelite dress. The gown consists of a flared front panel attached to an open, flowing robe which falls from pleats at the back. The front panel has a patch pocket on the right side which is hidden by the deep plush edging.
Materials & Making
The puffed sleeves, wide cuffs and velvet edgings are inspired by plain, loose 16th century gowns. The sunflower and pomegranate motif on the fabric was a recurring design on objects associated with the Aesthetic Movement. The subtle gold and brown tones were popular ‘artistic’ colours used in both dress and furnishing fabrics during the 1890s.
Pre-Raphaelite painters had clothed their models in plain, loose dresses based on the forms of ‘early Medieval art’. The opening of Liberty’s dress department in 1884 helped popularise the taste for aesthetic dress. The Liberty designs which ranged from aesthetic gowns and children’s artistic dresses to more conventional ‘tea-gowns’ had a wide international appeal among the social elite.
Ownership & Use
This type of dress was seen as the healthy and aesthetic alternative to the corseted and constrictive fashions in conventional dress. Before long it was not only those with artistic leanings who chose to wear garments which fit more loosely. By the early 20th century many fashionable dresses had a softer shoulder line and a more natural silhouette.
Doll’s bonnet, ca 1840 France, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Doll’s bonnet of dark blue satin faced with yellow taffeta with light blue ribbon ties, trimmed on top with wreath of artificial flowers, dark blue velvet ribbon, and blonde lace.