It has been said that a culture is either obsessed with sex or with death.
For the Victorians, it was death. Death in Victorian British culture was ever-present; elaborate death rituals sustained the living, and set the tone for a whole way of life.
Set against the simplicity of the rural village funeral, the Victorian era developed its more formal, urban and upwardly aspiring culture; death became more heavily ritualised.
Simple folk traditions and customs turned into more formal rules of behaviour; mourning itself becoming institutionalised ….requiring ‘dignity’ and the right outward appearances.
Properly followed, these bestowed respectability on a family.
The signs of mourning were everywhere – bonnets, bedclothes, floors, black edged calling cards and notepaper, widows weeds, seclusion! Tailors relied on the outfitting of whole families in mourning clothes for their main income.
The fashion magazines of the day – Maids Wives and Widow’s Magazine, Women’s Blackwoods, Sylvia’s Home Journal – carried sizeable editorial and articles addressing the various dilemmas of mourning etiquette.
The quintessential widow, Queen Victoria, who practically owned respectability, insisted that 3-year old Beatrice wore black when her mother’s half sister’s husband died!
However, Queen Victoria herself did not go to the funeral of her beloved Albert; although she wore full mourning in its various stages for the rest of her life.
While women were not allowed to go to funerals (lest they betray emotion or distract the other mourners), a Victorian woman of social standing was required to adopt full mourning for two years, and purple/grey/violet/mauve for a further 6 months.
Black was a whole language of fabrics: black alpaca’s, black barathea’s, black crape, black French merino, black imperial cloth, black paramattas; and spawned a host of black products: black brilliantine’s, black coburg’s, jet jewellery, black vulcanite, (for a non shiny ear trumpet), black edged notepaper, black hair lockets.
The Victorian family’s contemplation of mortality was filled with a religious faith, and expressed through elaborate (and expensive) ritual.
Next Blog post: What happened to the Victorian ritual and obsession with death …… The Source of the Death Taboo.