Curator’s Choice – Bonnets and Mourning

Posted: 28th April 2021

Humber Museums Partnership - Curator’s Choice – Bonnets and Mourning

1870s or 1880s
Worn by a woman in mourning.

The practice of public mourning dates to the Middle Ages, when the elite classes had etiquette that they were expected to follow to publicly show their grief. The popularity of public mourning reached its peak in the Victorian era, when the Industrial Revolution meant that mourning clothes were more readily available to all classes, not just the elite. The Victorians really went to town with public mourning – funerals would be as elaborate as money could buy, with large processions led by black horses adorned with black ostrich feathers, pulling the hearse. People might have a photograph taken of their deceased loved one or wear jewellery containing their hair. These tokens are known as memento mori, a reminder of death.

And of course, there was mourning dress. Depending on who you were mourning, you were expected to wear mourning dress for different lengths of time. When Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, died in 1861, Queen Victoria stayed in mourning dress until she died in 1901. Normally, a widow was expected to stay in mourning for two years, wearing what was known as “widow’s weeds”. Full mourning lasted for a year, when she would wear only dark clothes, usually incorporating a specific material known as “mourning crape”, and a veil. She should not wear jewellery or engage in frivolous events. She then entered a period of “second mourning”, where she could stop wearing mourning crape but keep the clothes dark. Finally, she entered the period of “half mourning”, where she could start adding colours such as purples to her clothes.

Even before the First World War in 1914, the length of time for mourning had decreased. The war meant that elaborate customs became fewer as more people died. By the 1920s, mourning was still encouraged, but with a much shorter length of time, and to more individual taste.

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