What is the purpose of a mourning veil? Let’s talk about the history of the mourning veil and the accessory’s real and unintended purposes.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- What’s a Mourning Veil?
- Where Do Mourning Veils Come From?
- The Problems Associated with Victorian Mourning Veils
- What Cultures Use Mourning Veils?
We’ll also discuss veils throughout history and help you decide if you should wear one to the next funeral you attend.
What’s a Mourning Veil?
A mourning veil is worn by an individual who is “in mourning” or is saddened by a death. Mourning veils are typically black and are made from lace, tulle, or other lightweight netting material that allows a person to see through it. They can be a variety of lengths; some go all the way to the floor and others barely cover the eyes.
Mourning veils are worn for a variety of reasons. Some are practical and other reasons are symbolic.
The most practical reason people wear veils is to shield their faces from view. People who are sad may have puffy, red eyes and a raw nose. Their makeup may have smeared as a result of crying and they may feel unattractive. A veil keeps others (including photographers) from getting a glimpse of someone not looking her best.
Veils may also hide dry eyes and a face not contorted with pain or grief. Some people do not show public displays of emotion but they may not want to be judged by not showing typical signs of grief.
There are many symbolic reasons why a person would wear a veil. Wearing a black veil can be a sign of grief and sadness. It may also be a signal to others that you wish to mourn in solitude.
In the past, mourning veils had additional symbolic meanings. Mourning veils still told others that you were grieving so much that you could not concern yourself with the current fashion.
Mourning veils also sent out signals to other men that you were not open to sexual advances any other sort of frivolity. A mourning veil was a symbol of modesty and chastity.
According to an etiquette guide written in 1855, the mourning veil had unintended consequences. The book stated, “Black is becoming, and young widows, fair, plump, and smiling, with their roguish eyes sparkling under their black veils, are very seducing.” Even though the societal reason for wearing a veil was to discourage attention from other men, it may have had the opposite effect for some.
Let’s learn more about this garment as we discuss where mourning veils originated.
Where Do Mourning Veils Come From?
For centuries, westerners have looked to England’s royal family for guidance on what to wear and how to act. This continues today, as many mimic the styles worn by both the Duchess of Cambridge and the Duchess of Sussex (Kate and Meghan) across the world.
Queen Elizabeth II’s great-great-grandmother was Queen Victoria, who ruled over the British Empire for most of the 1800s. Her husband, Albert, died during her reign, and Victoria adopted a style of dress that people copied.
Queen Victoria chose to wear black for the rest of her life. Her accessories and jewelry were also black, made of fossilized carbon that looks like black glass.
Her clothing choices were echoed in Victorian England and elsewhere across the world. Mourning standards differed depending on the woman’s relationship with the deceased. Women who lost their husbands went into “first,” “full” or “deep” public mourning and wore outfits referred to as widow’s weeds. During this period, women did not often appear in public. This lasted a full year until a person went into “second” mourning.
Women still wore a veil during second mourning, but it was often lifted and worn back over the head. The second mourning period lasted nine months.
Finally, during half-mourning, women could wear hats again instead of bonnets with mourning veils. Instead of wearing black all the time, women in half-mourning would wear gray or dark purple. During all three periods, it was the style for women to wear jewelry made out of their loved one’s hair.
After two years of mourning her husband, a Victorian woman may slowly return to her regular clothes, or like Queen Victoria, may choose to wear dark clothes for the rest of her life.
Men during this era often wore dark-colored suits in everyday life. Their “mourning dress” looked similar to what they would have commonly worn to the office. Men did not wear mourning veils.
The Problems Associated with Victorian Mourning Veils
An entire mourning clothing industry developed during this time. Shops opened that specialized in this type of clothing. Women felt obligated to purchase an entirely new wardrobe while in mourning to not go against societal norms. Mourning clothes sometimes placed these women in financial hardship.
The expense of the clothing was not the only problem women had with this style of dress. Modern scholars have determined that the fabrics used in mourning veils may have been detrimental to their health.
As we mentioned earlier, crape was a common type of material used for mourning veils. Crape is a silk gauze that was crimped with heated rollers. It was stiffened with gum, starch, or glue and was cheap to produce because it could be made from waste silk. Often two layers of the material would be used to create a full-length mourning veil.
There were many problems with crape. First, it would stain the wearer’s skin anytime it got wet, and the only way to wash off the dye was by using harmful chemicals. Second, it was an abrasive material and would irritate the delicate skin on the face as it brushed against it.
Next, double-layered crape veils were also challenging to see and breathe through. They were uncomfortable to wear and described as “stifling” in the heat.
Finally, many of the substances used in the production of the crape were toxic. Crape that was dyed black using the heartwood of a Central American tree was known to cause eye and skin irritation and respiratory problems.
A substance used to set the dye was also poisonous. Substances like potassium dichromate were “highly corrosive to skin and mucous membranes,” and could cause severe eye damage.
Things did not improve as time went on. In the 1850s, a dye was created from coal tar (or benzene). This was mixed with potassium dichromate and copper chloride, which were other harmful ingredients. To top it all off, the dyes were processed with arsenic.
There are medical accounts describing women who suffered from arsenic poisoning from wearing a black crape dress. Yes, women mourning the loss of a loved one did not necessarily die of grief. Instead, they died from wearing widow’s weeds made from toxic materials.
The practice of wearing mourning clothes reduced in popularity during World War I. The citizens of the world had more to concern themselves with during this time than worrying whether someone was dressed appropriately during mourning.
Even though mourning veils decreased in popularity among the masses, they continued to be worn throughout the years. Both Jacqueline Kennedy and Coretta Scott King wore mourning veils during their husband’s funerals.
Mourning veils are worn at modern funerals as well. They have a dual purpose of showing that the wearer is sad about a loss, but they are also considered highly fashionable accessories. They may be embellished and have often been worn to funerals of those who made a living in the fashion industry.
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What Cultures Use Mourning Veils?
Mourning veils are still used in western culture, but wearing one is not part of societal norms. Read more about death in different cultures to learn about popular mourning dress styles across the world.
What Should You Wear to Your Loved One’s Funeral?
The style of dress that people wear to American funerals varies greatly. It is dependent upon the societal group, geographic region, and religion.
While most people still wear dark-colored formal clothes to funerals, which could be accessorized with a black mourning veil, other communities wear less formal attire. Those who choose to wear a mourning veil most often choose a style that barely covers the eyes, and they certainly aren’t made of toxic materials.
- Levy, Lisa. “Women’s Expressions of Grief, from Mourning Clothes to Memory Books.” JSTOR Daily. 10 December 2014. daily.jstor.org/women-and-mourning/
- Raymond, Chris. “The Origins and History of Widow’s Weeds.” Very Well Health. 15 March 2020. www.verywellhealth.com/what-are-widows-weeds-1131950
- Sears, Jocelyn. “Wearing a 19th-Century Mourning Veil Could Result in — Twist — Death.” Racked. 29 March 2018. www.racked.com/2018/3/29/17156818/19th-century-mourning-veil