What images come to mind when thinking about symbols of mourning? You may think of flags waving at half-mast. You may think of dirges playing quietly in the background of a room filled with sad people. And if you had to choose a color that was a symbol of mourning, most westerners would choose black.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- History of Wearing Black at a Funeral
- Do You Always Have to Wear Black at a Funeral in Today’s World?
Have you ever stopped to consider where this custom of wearing black to a funeral originated? Why do most Americans believe black as a color of mourning, while many in the Hindu culture wear white to funerals? Do you always have to wear black to a funeral? Is wearing another color besides black considered rude or inappropriate?
Keep reading to learn more about the social convention of wearing black to a funeral. First, we will learn the history of funeral clothes, and then discuss how that affects mourners in modern times.
History of Wearing Black at a Funeral
Westerners didn’t always wear black to depict that they were in mourning. In fact, it wasn’t until the fourteenth century that an ordinary person would have multiple sets of clothes from which to choose. Those living in this era wore black to a funeral if that was the color of his or her suit of clothes. Otherwise, a mourner might wear a black, gray, or red cape over everyday clothes to depict sorrow.
More important than the color of the clothes was the fact that they were unflattering and unfashionable. A woman who lost her husband could not remarry as quickly as a man who lost his wife. Because of this social requirement, a widow was to make herself look as unattractive as possible to dissuade any man from making inappropriate advances. Men, of course, did not have to worry about this convention.
So, where did the idea of wearing black to a funeral originate? Most scholars believe that the practice came from Queen Victoria.
Queen Victoria took the throne of England in 1837 when she was 18 years old. Since she was so young, she quickly became a fashion icon for the women in the British Empire and the rest of the world. They also looked to the young monarch for an example of how to act.
So when a popular duke died, an elaborate funeral was held. The services were full of pomp and ritual. Ornate stones were placed at the head of the graves, and Queen Victoria showed her sorrow by wearing an elaborate, black mourning gown.
Wearing black to depict mourning quickly became the trend. In fact, it became so popular that women’s magazines at the time wrote articles about the proper mourning dress based upon the relationship with the deceased. For example, if a woman’s first cousin died, she was expected to wear mourning clothes for four weeks. But if a woman lost her husband, she was supposed to wear black clothes for two full years.
The funeral industry boomed during this time. Clothiers who specialized in mourning clothes opened shops in London. As it was considered gauche to re-wear the same mourning clothes when a different member of the family died, the business owners were guaranteed repeat business.
A woman’s mourning dress had to meet unique criteria. It was not enough that the dress merely be black in color, but it also had to be made out of a non-shiny silk or bombazine. The mourning dresses, called “widow’s weed,” were trimmed with crape, a hard, scratchy material.
After a specified period, which was dictated by the women’s magazines, a woman could remove the crepe from her garment. This process was called “slighting the mourning.” If a woman lost her husband, she was expected to wear the crepe material for at least a year. After the crepe was removed from the gowns, she was allowed to wear black jewelry and add black lace or ribbon to the outfit.
As time passed, women were allowed to lighten the color palette of their clothes gradually. When a woman began wearing gray, mauve, or white, this showed that the woman was going into half-mourning. This stage could last for months or for the rest of her life.
Purchasing mourning clothes wasn’t as simple as buying a black dress. One also had to have the appropriate accessories to wear as well, including hats, shoes, fans, and wraps. Not wearing the proper clothes while in mourning was not an option. Dressing inappropriately while grieving could make you a social pariah in some communities.
As you can see, funeral etiquette was serious business in Victorian England. These beliefs spread to the United States, as well. There is a famous scene in Gone With the Wind when Scarlett shocked everyone at the ball by dancing with Rhett Butler while wearing her mourning clothes.
Mourning dress for men
Men did not have the same societal rules when it came to mourning dress. Since most men already wore black or dark suits, their clothing style didn’t change after the death of a family member.
They may have worn black gloves and a black cravat, but it seems as if there was no such thing as “slighting the mourning” or half-mourning like there was for the ladies.
What it means
Why did mourners wear black? Apparently, someone thought that black best represented a person’s feelings after losing a dear family member.
There is no frivolity associated with the color black. And wearing black shows that a person is so consumed with sorrow that it affects every aspect of her life, even what she chose to wear that morning.
Do You Always Have to Wear Black at a Funeral in Today’s World?
It’s interesting to know the history of funeral dress, but this history does not help you figure out what to wear to a funeral. After all, Queen Victoria won’t be in attendance to judge you on whether or not you meet the social customs of Victorian England. But your mother-in-law might be there, so you don’t want to wear something that would be inappropriate in her book.
Do you have to wear black to a funeral in today’s world? Of course, you don’t. Do many people choose to wear black? Yes, they do.
Even centuries after Queen Victoria’s reign, many people wear black, navy, or gray to funerals. Most etiquette guides say that wearing other colors to a funeral is acceptable, but solid colors are better than patterns.
But times are changing. Some people request in their end-of-life plans that they would like mourners to wear a specific favorite color when attending the funeral service. Others may ask that people don’t wear black to their funerals.
Also, some people don’t feel that it is necessary to follow all social conventions regarding formal events. Weddings are becoming much more personalized events, so it makes sense that funerals may begin feeling more personal as well.
As a result, you may see people wear a variety of colors the next time you attend a funeral. Even if a person wears white to a funeral, they probably mean no disrespect to the surviving family members or deceased.
Do You Wear Black to Funerals?
When Victoria lost her husband, she went into deep mourning. She embroidered black tears on her handkerchiefs and wore widow’s weeds for the rest of her life.
Ironically, some of these societal rules lifted when Queen Victoria died. Her mourners, including her daughter-in-law, did not wear crepe to her funeral. Black did not surround Victoria in her coffin either. Her funeral draperies were made of a violet material, and the pall was made of white satin.
World War I lessened mourning restrictions as well. It was considered frivolous and wasteful for mourners to have a second wardrobe for mourning, especially since families did not experience the death of a loved one until the war. The practice continued to lessen during World War II as well.
The next time you get dressed for a visitation, funeral, or celebration of life, think back to Queen Victoria. Even though she was only 18 when she was placed on the throne, her influence can still be felt today.
- Bedikian, Sonia A. “The Death of Mourning: From Victorian Crepe to the Little Black Dress.” Baywood Publishing Company, 2008. canvas.brown.edu/courses/1074452/files/61323275/download?wrap=1