Cara/Andrea here, I'm musing today on a dark subject . . . as in black! Now, New York fashionistas would have no problem adhering to the complex rituals of 19th century mourning—wearing black is very stylish and an everyday staple of any modern trendy wardrobe. It’s hip and ultra cool to eschew brighter colors for the shadow-dark hue of midnight. But as we all know, black had a different connotation in in the past.
You’re probably all aware of the basic mourning rules, but the current exhibit of Mourning Wear at the Metropolitan Museum in New York (a fabulous show if you have a chance to get to the city—all photos here are ones I took of the clothing on display) got me to revisit the subject. And my research reminded me that Regency rules weren’t nearly so elaborate and strict as those of the Victorian era, where the Queen seemed to inspire a rather ghoulish extreme in honoring the dead.
The Regency seemed a little more laid back . . . as in a Pirates of the Caribbean parlay, the rules were more like . . . guidelines. For those who couldn’t afford the expense of a black dress—or didn’t feel compelled to buy one—it was perfectly acceptable to take an older gown, undo the stitching, dye it black and then re-sew it. Here’s an excerpt from one of Jane Austen’s letters from 1808:
“My Mother is preparing mourning for Mrs E. K. – she has picked her old silk pelisse to pieces, & means to have it dyed black for a gown – a very interesting scheme."
If a dress could not be made or bought, a simple black mourning band or touch of black ribbons was considered proper (though this happened more with the lower classes.) Here’s another quote from a letter Jane wrote to her sister in 1814:
“A grand thought has struck me as to our gowns. This six weeks’ mourning makes so great a difference that I shall not go to Miss Hare till you can come and help choose yourself, unless you particularly wish the contrary. It may be hardly worth while perhaps to have the gowns so expensively made up. We may buy a cap or a veil instead; but we can talk more of this together…Now we are come from church, and all going to write. Almost everybody was in mourning last night, but my brown gown did very well… It makes one moralise upon the ups and downs of this life.”
For our Regency ladies, proper mourning was a year and a day. For “full mourning” (typically the first six months )black crepe was the fabric of choice, along with bombazine silk, which had a matte finish. (Shiny fabrics were off limits.) The only jewelry considered proper was jet, amber, black glass or block enamel.
During “half mourning” subdued colors were permitted. Those hues included dull grays, lilac and lavender, as well as white, which was a mourning color during Medieval times. (If one had a an extended family plagued by bad health, one could be wearing some form of mourning for years!) Jewelry made of pearls, coral and amethyst was allowed.
There are, of course, many more arcane details but this is just a quick primer to go along with the photos of the vintage clothing on display at the museum (some of them really show the fabric and pattern details, which are exquisite.) What strikes me is the variety of wonderful textures, shapes and silhouettes within the confines of the rules—a visual reminder that style is always in fashion!
Now I happen to love black, and wear it quite often, but I would not like it to be the only hue I was permitted to wear. I’d really miss the range of blues, from deep indigo to sea-green to robin’s egg. What color would you miss wearing most if you were required to wear deep mourning?