New Victorian Mourning Exhibit at Lang Pioneer Village Museum By Audrey Caryi PDF  | Print |  E-mail

New Victorian Mourning Exhibit at Lang Pioneer Village Museum By Audrey Caryi, Museum Specialist


Audrey Caryi, Museum Specialist with Victorian mourning artifacts 

Walk on up to the second floor of the Keene Hotel at Lang Pioneer Village Museum, turn right at the top of the stairs and you’ll see that there is a new salesman in town. The Salesman Room upstairs in the Keene Hotel has a new exhibit this summer based on the Victorian traditions surrounding mourning. Queen Victoria’s grieving practices during her mourning period for her beloved Albert (d. 1861) became the traditions copied throughout the British Empire. Black, symbolic of spiritual darkness, was worn throughout the mourning period for both adult males and females. It was used on everything from clothing to handkerchiefs, fans, gloves and black-edged note paper for announcements.

 Victorian mourning dictates about fashion were mainly directed at females. This serious period in a widow’s life extended for two years. For the first year of mourning, referred to as the deepest mourning, a widow was not allowed to leave her home without wearing full black attire and a weeping veil of crepe that covered her face and extended down the length of her back. Veils were intended to shield widows from the outside world seeing her expression of grief, a private emotion. Her clothing was simple with no lace or decorations. Black jet jewellery, hair bracelets made from the hair of the deceased, or a locket with a picture of the deceased and possibly a piece of their hair were accepted, but otherwise adornments were not worn. In winter, only black furs were allowed. The lack of decoration was meant to show the expression of the widow's deep sorrow rather than drawing attention to her appearance.

 After deepest mourning, the second stage of mourning — half mourning — continued for the following six months. Now the veil could be drawn off the face to the back of a hat or a silk bonnet trimmed with crepe and black ribbon. The introduction of white cuffs and collars was a move from the totally black attire of the previous stage of mourning. Materials with decorative patterns, or elaborate fabrics such as velvet, could now be used as trim, but still only the colour black for these decorative pieces was acceptable during this middle period. 

The last six months saw the introduction of colours such as grey, mauve, purple and lavender. In many cases, widows could not afford to purchase their black mourning garments, so it was common practice to dye clothing black. Certain types of dyes were objected to by doctors because, when breathed in while wearing a veil, they could produce catarrhal disease. After the mourning period, those women who had economized by dying their clothing black would now bleach the colour out. Also, jewellery of all sorts was now allowed. 

Males were less encumbered by restrictions on their mourning clothing. Victorian men’s clothing was often made of black or dark fabrics anyway, so the addition of a black arm band or hat band was added to note his grieving position. A man’s mourning period extended for a shorter time than a woman’s and, during this time, men were not as isolated as women; they were able to continue to conduct their professional business while their female counterparts were expected to minimize social interactions.

 Children under 17 did not wear black; instead, they wore white with black trim. Mourning for children in many families was a sad reality. It was not uncommon for families to lose more than one child in infancy or early childhood. When out in public, mourning mothers wore black with white lace trim on their dresses to represent the purity of the child that had died.

 These Victorian practices, imitating the British Victorian Royal Court, were not always practical in rural Ontario. Queen Victoria’s excessive 40-year mourning period, complete with statues of her beloved Albert, was extreme. In most rural situations, the role of the married female was to care for her children, husband and the home, and she was often left with no financial support after her husband’s death. It was understood and accepted that widows and widowers, who both faced the practical need for survival and financial support, might remarry before the end of the grieving period.

 The Victorian mourning exhibit in the Keene Hotel provides a space for us to share these mourning practices with our visitors while at the same time enabling us to display artifacts from our collection that have not been on public display before.  The decision to use the theme of a mourning display was also based on my personal experience; my husband of forty years passed away eighteen months ago. I am relieved not to be part of the heavy, dramatic Victorian mourning traditions.


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