Memento Mori: Victorian Mourning Lingerie
Mourning the death of a loved one is certainly a difficult period for all involved. Today death and mourning is very private, however in the Victorian period mourning was a very public affair. Mourning attire was a very important factor in this overt grieving process, and this included the lingerie that the women had to wear.
Queen Victoria reformed the mourning rituals after the loss of her Mother, and nine months later the loss of her beloved husband, Prince Albert. The entire country was propelled into a state of national mourning, and the entire Royal Household lead the way in mourning fashions and trends; men, women and children.
This very extreme and public display of mourning revolutionised how the Victorians were to mourn loved ones, and even lingerie was affected by this change of trend.
Women would mourn the death of a family member for at least 4 weeks. The death of a parent would result in mourning for at least a year and the death of a husband required at least two years of mourning.
Women were the leaders of a household's mourning drill. It was the woman who as the social representatives of their husbands showed the world how sorrowed the family was by wearing clothes and following little rules that reflected this.
In 1865 Henry Mayhew the social historian remarked that women;
‘had to put aside all their ordinary clothes and wear nothing but black, in the appropriate materials and with particular accessories, for the first stages of mourning.'
Often this meant that women would dye their clothes black, anything visible would have been black. As much as possible, undergarments that touched the skin were not dyed to avoid the dye wearing off on the skin. However, black ribbon, lace and trims would be added wherever possible.
Funeral lingerie consisted of petticoats made of silk and stuft. Stockings would also have been made from silk, cashmere or balbriggan. Balbriggan was lightweight knitted cotton, elasticised, so ideal for underwear, but just like nylon stockings today it laddered easily. If possible these were purchased in black or dyed at home.
Black corsets were worn; sometimes this may have been inset with white lace for mourning. Wealthy women with the means to invest in mourning attire and mourning lingerie may well have purchased fine white cambric funeral lingerie threaded with black satin and a matching corset.
The new trends of extreme mourning attire also meant that all women’s fashionable treasured possessions were tucked away until after a considerable amount of grieving time passed. As much as today, lingerie would have been a small devilish treat for oneself, and ladies who could afford white broderie anglaise would purchase pieces of lingerie in white with black ribbon detailing as a guilty pleasure.
Ladies, and gentleman, would go to considerable expense on the caps, cuffs and collars which were visible but would have also adorned their undergarments. Often women wore muslin or cotton under-vests with collars and cuffs that would show beyond the outer garments.
Caps, cuffs and collars would be made from lawn; the name comes from the town Laon in the North of France. Lawn is a type of linen, often used by the clergy. Cotton and fine muslin were alternatives for the less affluent. Cuffs were required to be nine inches long. The cuff would never overlap, it would meet at the wrist and fasten with buttons on the edges. Cuffs were often referred to as weepers, as these were used to dry tears.
Ladies would match the lace design of their cuffs to their handkerchiefs. Usually made from cambric or cotton, handkerchiefs were another indulgence women in mourning could obtain.
The wealthier ladies would also have ready, black kidskin gloves and very affluent women were allowed black animal pelts, however it needed to be evenly black. Sealskin, sheared beaver and astrakhan (newborn Persian lamb) were the choice pelt of the era.
Women who could not afford mourning attire were shunned. The writer Puckle reflected that
‘This is a time for display, not for borrowing, and who knows better than a widow that a score of coldly criticising eyes are watching events through broken venetian blinds and dirty Nottingham lace curtains…one is wondering where the money comes from to pay for the luxury of grief…’
Mourning today is short and discreet, something done behind closed doors. It has become a private affair just as sex has become a very public affair. Sex was unmentionable in Victorian society, and yet death held no mystery at all. The more public it was the more impressive you became.