To say the Victorians took mourning seriously is like saying Mount Everest is quite a big mountain. In 19th-century society, there were strict rules and obligations surrounding what was respectful and what constituted an acceptable funeral [for example, if required, it was said to be disrespectful not to use every last penny of the deceased money on a decent send-off.] Such was the fervor for expensive funerals that Lord Palmerston’s funeral procession to Westminster Abbey (1865) complete with a plumed featherman, a mute, and a pall emblazoned with Palmerston’s crest; was described by diarist Arthur Munby as “poor and a mean business: nothing noble or solemn or religious in the aspect of it or those who thronged to see it.”
The funeral aside, every aspect of death had its protocols if things were to be done properly. For example, a family would announce a death by sending black-edged letters in black-edged envelopes; the depth of the black border being proportionate to the closeness of the lost relative. The exception was a sudden, unexpected death, when the recipient of the news was frail or elderly; then it was thought the shock of such an obvious death notice might prove too great and so ordinary stationery permitted, as long as the envelope sealed with black wax.
Black, of course, was the color of mourning, with the bereaved expected to dress in black as a mark of respect both to the deceased and to society. But this was harder than it sounds because clothes were individually hand-sewn, and creating a new wardrobe took considerable time. For the middle classes and less well-off, one solution was to dye an ordinary day dress black. Whole businesses grew up that specialized in dyeing clothing for mourning, often advertising their speed of service as a selling point:
“We dye blacks every day, and special mourning orders can be executed in twenty-four hours if necessary.”
Unfortunately, the dyes were often unstable and prone to rub off on anything they touched, especially perspiring skin. For this reason, it was necessary to wear a shirt or blouse worn under a dyed garment, which then required a black border or black lace around the collar to disguise the transferred dye.
But at a time when clothes were tailored to the individual, what was really needed was a department store for mourning clothes, where ladies could buy black dresses off-the-peg. Alert to a gap in the market, the first such shop was Jay’s London General Mourning Warehouse, which opened in Regent Street in 1841. Good ideas are infectious, and shortly afterward Pugh’s Mourning Warehouse opened, followed by Peter Robinson’s General Mourning House. The latter met with great success and became known as Black Peter Robinson to distinguish them from their regular shop.
Black Peter Robinson became to Victorian mourners what JustEat is to fast food. Their USP was to keep a carriage on standby, to send to the bereaved home so the client could choose their mourning attire privately. The carriage itself fitted the bill, being sufficiently somber with the coachman wearing black clothing, hatband, and armbands; and the fitters similarly attired. As mourning clothing had to be produced quickly, a new trend developed, that of ready-to-wear dresses, and indeed, it was the demand for funeral clothing that is attributed to the rise of off-the-peg fashion more generally.
Such were the nuances of Victorian mourning that the fabric and shade of black sent out messages. Topping the list of desirable fabrics was bombazine (a wool or wool-mix fabric), hotly followed by crape. The latter was a type of dull silk crimped with hot irons during manufacture. Crape however wore poorly, and quickly became limp, which made maintaining it a nightmare. Any fabric with a sheen, such as silk, was considered vulgar and made light of the loss. However, this comic take on mourning from 1844, shows not everyone was oblivious to the farcical nature of the ‘rules’:
Lady: I wish to look at some mourning.
Shopman: By all means…How deep would you wish to go Ma’am. Do you wish to be very poignant? ..Here is one Ma’am just imported- a widow’s silk – watered to match the sentiment. It is called ‘inconsolable’. …Here for example is an article for the deeply afflicted. A black crape – makes up very somber. Or, if you prefer, a velvet.
Lady: Is it proper, sir, to mourn in velvet?
Shopman: O quite! Just coming in. Now is a very rich one, real Genoa, and a splendid black. We call it “The Luxury of Woe.”