Tag Archives: fashion

A Fashion for Mourning

One of the most enduring images of the Victorian age is Queen Victoria as the ‘Widow of Windsor’. Helen Rappaport, conference delegate and the author of Magnificent Obsession: Victoria, Albert and the Death that Changed the Monarchy (Hutchinson, 2011) tells us more about the commercial consequences of this fashion for mourning.

It always amuses me that in her widowhood Queen Victoria, a woman whose personal sartorial style was much derided in her youth, became the most unlikely of fashion trendsetters. When Prince Albert was alive she had always plumped for a rather conventional, outmoded style of dress. But during her forty years of mourning for Albert, she became a master of the most flamboyant protocols – turning the wearing of widows’ weeds into her own art form.

The year 1861 had begun with the court in deepest mourning for the King of Prussia. When he died, Victoria immediately donned her crape and sent out directives: nothing but black silk, bombazine and crape; black gloves, black collars, black flowers, feathers, lappets and fans and festoons of jet mourning jewellery were the order of the day at court. When her mother died three months later, Victoria’s hysterical grieving was a foretaste of things to come. The more extravagant her mourning, the more she felt it demonstrated her devotion, and as queen there were no limits placed on her right to indulge it. Further catastrophe followed when Prince Albert died on 14 December.

The universality of public grief that followed ensured that most people, however poor, donned some form of mourning for the prince, even if only a black armband. The world of commerce was quick to recognize the money to be made from this unexpected and unprecedented run on all things funereal. British manufacturing went into mass production of every conceivable kind of commemorative item: plaques, busts, plates, handkerchiefs, even special mourning tea sets – all bearing Albert’s portrait. The middle classes besieged the drapers and milliners shops to order mourning outfits for themselves and their children; so grief stricken were they that ‘people could not give their orders for crying’. In particular Jay’s London General Mourning Warehouse did a roaring trade, enjoying  sales never before seen in its twenty-year history.  Although general public mourning officially ended on 10 February, there was no let-up in what had become an ‘almost incalculable demand’ for mourning goods.  Victoria had already made it clear that she intended to remain in black until at least the beginning of 1864. This was not in itself exceptional, but merely emphasised an already existing code observed by many pious widows.  But such was the level of public sympathy for the queen that many followed suit and remained in mourning for longer – not just for the prince but, following Victoria’s example, for their own deceased relatives.
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