“The Fashion of Mourning” by Ann Schofield

This article is featured in the anthology, “Representations of Death in Nineteenth-Century US Writing and Culture” edited by Lucy E. Frank, from the University of Warwick, UK.  In her article Ms. Schofield writes about the cultural universality of the custom of mourning to mark the transition from life to death.  These customs are distinct from culture to culture and the rituals performed invariably mark the status, social role and gender of the deceased and their living.  She says, that ‘mourning customs are a way to bridge the gulf between private emotions of grief and social expectations, defining ideas of what is valued by an individual’, in what she calls, ‘crossing the boarder between life and death’.

Schofield asserts that the mourning custom for nineteenth century in the United States was determined by European and Christian beliefs.  Evidence left from the time the Republic was first formed until WWI are visible in textual documents, inscriptions and eulogies, and validate the uprightness of the person in society and their deserving place in afterlife.  In other words, a person of good standing was, by society, guaranteed a respectable sending off party, and a place in heaven.  The funerary objects donned in the way of dress, jewelry, and funeral services and crypts and tombstones, were concrete evidence of the social status of the family and friends involved.   These values are the very one’s which helped to carve out and differentiate the american bourgeoisie, from the rest of society.

American society is and was unique because it was upheld as the land of opportunities including social and economic mobility.  The bourgeoisie, while not encompassing all sectors of society was what many aspired to being, of having the comforts and security to consume whatever was available for making life more pleasant and desirable.  The reality however is that not all sectors of society were in actuality bourgeoisie but rather this was a status reserved for, as Alex Tocqueville envisioned, those who accumulated the fortunes, institutions and positions of power.  Furthermore, this process of acquiring capital by some, narrowed the gap for the serving class to become part of the well-to-do society.  Within the bourgeoisie structure, their were well defined roles; the men accumulated the capital and the women tended the hearth and home, and took care of the emotional backbone of the family, as well as managed the coffers filled by the husband.

With George Washington’s death in 1797 a market for funerary memorabilia became popular. Accumulation of material items, such as clothing for mourning and miniatures, or small portraits of the deceased painted on an oval ivory background was more and more the trend.  A culture of sentimentality arose whereby dying was not abhorred by many because it meant there would be a place for them in God’s kingdom.  This feeling of course was paralleled by an equal feeling of total emotional devastation by the loss of a loved one.  The social pressures attached to mourning etiquette were quite strict and if one didn’t follow them, they would be scorned or looked down upon by society.  One such rule was that black attire was to be worn for a full two years and for six months it was frowned upon to go to social functions such as to the opera or a dinner party.

A sentimental culture was marked by the two feelings of bereavement and sympathy. This was a culture of the Victorian Age and overtly practiced in circles of the bourgeoisie class.  Having these feelings was a matter of all sectors of society but if one were able to afford the hats, the gloves, the black mourning garment with complete accessories, then they were indexed as members of the social elite and special class, whereas all others were simply common people. As Ms. Schofield points out much of this trend was a following of the European traditions, particularly the social mores practiced by Queen Victoria herself.  When Prince Albert died in 1861, the entire court went into mourning and the Queen herself dressed in black until the end of her own life in 1901.

Mourning died out in Europe before the twentieth century, but women in the United States continued to wear mourning apparel into the early part of the century.  Socialist attitudes began to heavily criticize the elite trends and habits and Georg Simmel called bourgeoisie women, mannequins for the display of their husband’s wealth.  The mourning apparel finally disappeared completely when the clothing became so extravagant and the idea of flaunting one’s social status at the expense of a loved one’s death became a question of sincerity and ethics.