Today no special dress or behaviour is required for those in mourning in the general population, although different ethnic and religious faiths have specific rituals. The wearing of black even at funerals is in decline (and in NZ on increase at weddings). Traditionally, however, there were strict social rules to be observed.
By the 19th century, mourning behaviour in England had developed into a complex set of rules, particularly among the upper classes. Women bore the greatest burden of these customs. They involved wearing heavy, concealing, black clothing, and the use of heavy veils of black crêpe. The entire ensemble was colloquially known as “widow’s weeds” (from the Old English “Waed” meaning “garment”).
Special caps and bonnets, usually in black or other dark colours, went with these ensembles. There was special mourning jewellery often made of jet and with the hair of the deceased in a locket or brooch. The wealthy could also wear cameos or lockets designed to hold a lock of the deceased’s hair or some similar relic.
Widows were expected to wear special clothes to indicate that they were in mourning for up to four years after the death. To change the costume earlier was thought disrespectful to the decedent and, if the widow was still young and attractive, suggestive of potential sexual promiscuity. Those subject to the rules were slowly allowed to re-introduce conventional clothing at different time periods; such stages were known by such terms as “full mourning”, “half mourning”, and similar descriptions. At half mourning, grey and lavender colours could be introduced
Friends, acquaintances, and employees wore mourning to a greater or lesser degree depending on their relationship with the deceased. In general, servants wore black armbands when there had been a death in the household.
Mourning was worn for six months for a sibling. Parents would wear mourning for a child for “as long as they feel so disposed.” A widow was supposed to wear mourning for two years and was not supposed to enter society for twelve months. No lady or gentleman in mourning was supposed to attend balls. Amongst polite company, the wearing of simply a black arm band was seen as appropriate only for military men (or others compelled to wear uniform in the course of their duties). Wearing a black arm band instead of proper mourning clothes was seen as a degradation of proper etiquette and to be avoided.
Formal mourning culminated during the reign of Queen Victoria (1832-1901). Victoria may have had much to do with the practice, owing to her long and conspicuous grief over the death of her husband, Prince Albert. Although fashions began to be more functional and less restrictive for the succeeding Edwardians, appropriate dress for men and women, including that for the period of mourning, was still strictly prescribed and rigidly adhered to.
The rules were gradually relaxed, and acceptable practice for both sexes became to dress in dark colours for up to a year after a death in the family. By the late 20th century, this no longer applied. Black had been widely adopted by women in cities as a fashionable colour.Source: Wikipedia
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