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Victorian Lace and Mourning Attire: Elegance in Grief

submitted on 26 November 2023 by

A Somber Walk Down Memory Lane

It seems like only yesterday I was cleaning out my dear, departed great-aunt Mabel's attic and discovered her extensive collection of Victorian mourning attire. Should I have been surprised? Not at all. My family is best known for our penchant for the macabre. Aunt Mabel never met a funereal accessory she didn't fancy. The woman considered grave rubbings to be high art and spent her weekends taking in the sights at that great tourist destination, the cemetery.

The Lacy Veil of Grieving

A Victorian lady in mourning had to dress the part, and that included a generous helping of lace. But not just any lace would do, oh no. It had to be the most somber, the most intricate, and above all, the most expensive lace the grieving widow could get her hands on.For you see, nothing says "I'm utterly bereft" like a fine Chantilly or Valenciennes lace trim on the edge of your mourning bonnet. I mean, who could possibly question your deep, abiding sorrow when you're draped in yards of delicate threadwork, painstakingly crafted by nimble-fingered Belgian nuns? Surely, if you could afford such a luxury, it meant your heartache was genuine and profound.

Accessorize Your Anguish

But the lace was just the beginning. Oh, there was an entire world of mourning accessories available to the discerning Victorian lady of means. From the jet beads (an inky black stone that's basically coal's goth cousin) to the mourning brooches with a lock of the dearly departed's hair encased in glass, every item of your grief ensemble was designed to signal your social status and remind everyone that your life was in shambles.Here are a few of my personal favorite mourning accessories:
  • The black-edged handkerchief, for daintily dabbing your tearful eyes in public. Heaven forbid anyone should think you were actually enjoying a pleasant day at the park during your period of mourning.
  • The mourning fan, a fabulous (and functional) way to both subtly signal your grief and keep yourself cool during those interminable summer funerals.
  • The mourning parasol, because the sun is hardly respectful of your loss, and even the bereaved need to protect their delicate complexions from its harmful rays.
And, of course, no mourning ensemble would be complete without a truly spectacular hat, festooned with black feathers and swathed in more black lace than you could shake a stick at. Aunt Mabel would have been proud.

Widows and Widowers and Restrictions, Oh My!

Victorian mourning customs were nothing if not comprehensive. The length of the mourning period and the specifics of the attire varied depending on your relationship to the deceased. For widows, it was an entire year of "full mourning," complete with the aforementioned lace, jet beads, and a wardrobe of all-black clothing.After that came a period of "half mourning," when the bereaved could slowly reintroduce gray, purple, and white into their wardrobes, like a sad and somber rainbow. As for widowers, they had it much easier—all they had to do was wear a black suit and a black armband for a measly three months.But heaven help you if you tried to bend these strict rules of sartorial sorrow. To flaunt the conventions of mourning attire was to invite the wrath of polite society. It was a blunder almost as grievous as wearing a white dress to someone else's wedding or showing up to a funeral in a clown costume.

The Moral of the Mourning

So what can we learn from this stroll through the lace-draped world of Victorian mourning attire? I suppose one lesson is that fashion has always been a powerful means of communication, especially when it comes to social customs and expectations. As much as I might like to imagine Aunt Mabel chucking it all and wearing a red dress to her husband's funeral, I know she would never have dared.But perhaps the most valuable takeaway from this deep dive into the world of Victorian grief is a reminder to appreciate the freedoms we have in expressing our sadness today. Sure, the old ways had a certain dark glamour to them, but who wants to spend a year or more of their lives dressed like an extra from a Tim Burton film?So the next time you find yourself at a funeral, take a moment to appreciate the fact that you're not obligated to wear head-to-toe black lace and lug around a parasol. Trust me, Aunt Mabel would be envious.
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