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DeMenil presents the manners of mourning

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 12, 2012 - In July 1885, one Miss Hughes of New York journeyed to Mount McGregor in the Adirondack Mountains. She made the hot journey at least twice in the week following the death of former president Ulysses S. Grant. Miss Hughes was a dressmaker in the employ of New York’s Lord & Taylor Department store, and the press followed her visit (supervised by Mr. Eschbach of the manufacturing suit and underwear department) quite closely.

She was of interest because custom required Mrs. Grant and her female relatives to purchase a whole new wardrobe for mourning. Before the president was laid to rest, newspapers across the country had published details of his widow’s, children’s and grandchildren’s mourning wardrobes, even before the clothing was finished.

Queen Victoria, it is often noted, wore the clothes of mourning for 40 years, from the death of her dear Prince Albert in 1861 until her own death in 1901. Victoria set the fashion, but American women were the most enthusiastic adopters. Conspicuous displays of grief were a cherished part of our nation’s culture until well into the 20th century.

Mourning costume varied widely according to social class. Wealthy women in the post-Civil War era were expected to wear “deep mourning” or “first mourning” for a year and a day. In this stage, the widow never appeared without a veil, and all of her clothes and accessories were a lusterless black, often covered with the wrinkly stiff fabric known as crape.

In the “second mourning” stage, the veils (and later caps) could be removed, and dresses showed more variety in fabric. In “light mourning” or “half mourning,” women could begin to introduce somber colors such as gray.

In addition to dresses and veils, upper class women were expected to have mourning petticoats, handkerchiefs, gloves, mantles, bonnets and jackets. The expense of purchasing one or two such outfits was considerable, and out of reach for much of the population.

Those unable to afford proper mourning clothes would dye their existing clothes or borrow outfits for the funeral and other public occasions. But for those who had the means, mourning fashions could be every bit as demanding as any other fashion of the day.

Miss Hughes and her journey across the Adirondacks may have been an extreme example, but every woman of means was expected to obtain suitable mourning clothes in the three or four days between her husband’s death and his funeral. Respectability confined the woman to her home during that period, so orders were sent by messenger. Large stores had separate departments for mourning, and the necessity to produce new clothes within a day or two resulted in something close to the first off-the-rack fashions, already partially constructed but still admitting alteration for the lady in question.

The standard set by Queen Victoria was impossible to follow, of course, and within a few years some sectors of the British public suffered from what might be described as mourning fatigue. In the 1870s and especially the 1880s, calls for “mourning reform” appeared in British and American publications.

An 1889 item in the Post-Dispatch repeated an Englishwoman’s argument: “While a woman, in obedience to the dictates of funeral fashion, must be clothed from head to foot in habiliments of woe for a prescribed period upon the death of a husband or near relative, men are let off with a crape hat band.” The article’s author gets the editorial last word, arguing back that women wear mourning not because of fashion but because they are more sorrowful than men (!).

This point of view was already losing favor by the time it was published. Earlier in 1889, at the end of a very long illustrated article on the latest bonnets, dress cuts and parasols for grief, the author was so bold as to point out that many “extremely sensible” women wore no mourning at all, and to express the hope that “Civilization may advance one day to the point of substituting simple, inconspicuous dress for any form of mourning regalia.”

More than 120 years later, the author’s wish has materialized into a culture where blue jeans are often seen at funerals. Is this really an advance?

You can judge for yourself at the Chatillon-DeMenil House’s exhibit, “A Death in the Family: Death and Mourning in the 19th Century.” The annual event features period re-enactors, exhibits of mourning clothing and jewelry, a display of post-mortem photography, a chance to participate in Victorian spirit photography, and a dozen other displays, exhibits and things to do. The Chatillon-DeMenil House,3352 DeMenil Place, is at the intersection of Cherokee Street and I-55.

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