When it comes to popular history, the past two years have shown that there are two things that grab people’s attention just that bit more than other topics: fashion history (see, for example, the near-hysteria over the costuming in Bridgerton) and the morbid and slightly obscure. An interesting case that seemed to combine the two recently washed up on my timeline in the form a simple tweet that happened to be directly related to my research. The photo in question showed a rack of black, frilly and lacy dresses from H&M’s autumn 2020 collection, with the caption ‘seems like H&M is expecting a rush on Victorian funerals’.
This was surprising in two ways. Firstly, as a researcher of Victorian mourning culture, I would not have expected this rather niche topic to be so present in the public mind that a display at a popular fashion store would evoke it so readily. And the tweet, with its tongue-in-cheek reference to Victorian mourning, really did seem to resonate with the public in Britain and beyond. Indeed, as of 31 August, the original post had garnered an incredible 22,400 retweets and 297,800 likes, and it can only be assumed that the majority of people who liked this post are not necessarily enthusiasts for this relatively obscure topic. As with any specialist subject, sudden popularity invariably leads to demands for comment from hobbyists and hobby historians, many of whom shared their views on the post by judging not only the quality of the dresses but also by attempting to clear up popular misconceptions about Victorian mourning dress and what this actually entailed. Other ‘onlookers’ expressed their fascination with the topic as something they had either not seen or heard of, while also expressing the desire to learn more.
A surprising encounter with the culture of the past
Aside from the general fascination with Victorian fashion or the slight morbidity of the topic of funeral dress, the season we’re about to enter also have played a role here. Some Twitter comments mentioned “coven” and other witchy themes which would match the end of summer and the beginning of “Pumpkin Spice Latte” season and the coming of Halloween. Every year, Halloween-season seems to re-invigorate people’s interest in magic and everything mystical and witchy, even in Britain, where this originally Irish and now strongly American ‘feast of the dead’ has no long-standing tradition; our popular visions of historic funerary culture seems to be closely tied to this, and in line with All Hallows Day, where the veil between the world of the living and the non-living is said to be lifted. Victorian mourning culture would certainly fit in into this theme, as it is high-season for all things gothic and time for this subculture to stand centre-stage rather than in the periphery of fashion culture, within subcultures such as Gothic, Lolita and Steampunk. Another factor that might explain this apparently sudden fascination with Victorian mourning dress may also be that society currently finds itself in a state of collective grief as a result of the pandemic, which may make some of us more conscious of death and customs linked to death and bereavement.
It is also important to note our 21st century alienation with mourning rituals and grief. In a departure from centuries of tradition, for example, black is less and less often the choice of colour at funerals and is also no longer directly associated with mourning and death. In fact, even before the pandemic, mourning and death had become much less visible in everyday life, at least in most Western societies, than they had been for our ancestors. A certain fascination with something that is the material expression of a phenomenon that is much less visible to us these days is not surprising.
Having observed popular fashion history for a while now, I had always regarded Victorian ‘mourning dress’ inspired garments as being on the periphery of the ever-popular corset top and Bridgerton-inspired empire dresses that have become popular since the launch of the show in the lockdown winter of 2020. This has shown how fashion history provides an unusual case of a historical theme in which academics and fans come together as one, vividly exchanging opinions and ideas and learning from one another. Suddenly, a topic comes alive through entertainment, encouraging the interest of more and more people, as revealed by popular Youtube channels such as those run by Mina Le and Karolina Zebrowska, who are both followed by academics and fashion enthusiasts alike. As fashion historian Lou Taylor, author of the most exhaustive monograph on mourning dress to date, writes ‘The study of dress (…) is a key which opens the door to a deeper understanding of the developments that take place in society and its social ambitions and aspirations’. This should not be underestimated, especially when it comes to dress connected to rituals of the past, as material culture can help us to understand the emotional language of the past, reflected in fabric, colour and design, and shaped by a number of other factors, including intricate gender dynamics at play.
Victorian Mourning Culture
It is no coincidence that the creator of the original tweet nailed the period when writing ‘Victorian funerals’ without (presumably) being a historian. Victorian mourning culture in general and the Victorian funeral in particular have become somewhat ‘iconic’ among writers and others interested in such things, and are often referred viewed as a ‘celebration of mourning’ because grief was anything but muted. Over the course of the second half of the 19th century, there were major changes not only in rituals of mourning but also in burials and the design and function of cemeteries, cremation became ‘a thing’ for the first time, and the cultural impact of all this was enormous. No other period in British history is known for its funeral culture in quite the same way as the Victorian era. The Victorian funeral was all about material ‘expression’, but this certainly does not mean that it was a superficial business. A number of historians, as well as some those who witnessed these funerals, would argue that all of the ritualistic pageantry was ‘show’, but having done extensive research on the topic so far, I have noticed patterns and certain rituals not only seem to have been highly practical, but may also have served as a comfort to the mourner, with mourning dress working as a signifier to let society know that this person needed a different type of attention.
The emergence of this more demonstrative culture makes sense, as, due to industrialisation, mass production of goods (even ephemeral ones) was finally possible, partly enabling the rise of the so called mourning craze. Suddenly, all goods were available to purchase with a black border and all types of clothing (even children’s clothes and underwear) were available with a black ribbon. James Stevens Curl has emphasised that, these mourning accessories were naturally not only signifiers of grief but also of social position and status, and the rapidly expanding middle class was interested in doing what the gentry did; displaying prosperity and gentility in life as well as in death. Of course, the extent to which mourning was ‘performed’ also somewhat represented how much the person was loved, so mourners tried to outdo each other in the funeral, burial, and memorial arrangements they organised for their departed loved ones.
The actual description used here, the “funeral dress”, is incorrect as the dresses shown and brought up in the context and aftermath of the post were not.
As rightly said, not every black dress seen in the context of Victorian fashion was a mourning dress, as the ‘mourning craze’ and peak of the materialisation of mourning culture almost coincided with an increase in popularity of the black dress as such around the 1880s. This was due to developments in the qualities of dyes and while black dyes were still expensive, the quality of synthetic dyes had much improved but was still not perfect. Some black dyes also tended to go ‘rusty’ which is why we can often find ‘brown’ mourning dresses that were not of course meant to be brown.
The amount of mourning garments and related-items (dresses, jewellery, stationery) that have survived is also curious. Curl notes that this is simply due to the vast amount of mourning items that were produced, so this ‘survivor’s bias’ certainly shapes our perception of what we think is “Victorian”, and the iconic Victorian funeral culture, which was majorly influenced by Queen Victoria – the Widow of Windsor – has shaped our idea of what the Victorians were about. This especially makes sense if we look at how much fashion and music subcultures such as Goth are inspired by ‘Victorian’ style items. While fashion and style were rather diverse and differed from decade to decade in the nineteenth century, mourning dress was special, and the ‘mourning craze’ even led to the establishment of specialized stores – mourning warehouses – that sold “all things mourning” in the different shades of grief.
Importantly, mourning for the Victorians was more than mere sentiment and had to be carefully performed in stages – starting off with ‘first mourning’, then moving on to ‘half-‘ or ‘second mourning’. This progress through the different stages was reflected in the colours as well as the cuts and fabrics that were permitted. A female mourner would go from the deepest black to lighter shades of purple and ultimately reaching a stage at which she could dispense with mourning dress, thereby declaring her full re-entrance into society. Wearing mourning dress was not really a matter of choice but more part of the prevailing social etiquette, with most fabrics and cuts being restrictive and therefore attempting to reflect how the mourner felt. Mourning for men was more minimalist, often just expressed through a dark suit and hat- or armband. While it was never really en vogue to keep mourning short, mourners had the option to decide to stay in mourning indefinitely – just like Queen Victoria did, as a signal to society that the process had not yet been concluded.
While this is just a snapshot of the complex culture of Victorian mourning, it may help to put our own ways of dealing with grief into perspective. And that amusing tweet, initially shared for entertainment, has certainly led to a rich discussion about separation, loss, and bereavement, at a time when these things are very much in the public mind.
Pat Jalland: Death in the Victorian Family (1996)
Lou Taylor: Mourning Dress – A Costume and Social History (1983)
James Stevens Curl: The Victorian Celebration of Death (2000)
John Morley: Death, Heaven and the Victorians (1971)
Dilara Scholz is a public historian and PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her doctoral project focuses on gender, emotion and mourning in 19th century England.