Amgueddfa Blog

Blog Homepage

Mourning Wear and why it’s due a revival

Lowri Kirkham , 29 March 2022

About the Author - Lowri is one of the Freelance Young people Programme makers, working with Amgueddfa Cymru on the Winter of Wellbeing project. 

collage of mourning dresses and jewellery







The Situation 

I’m standing at the Supermarket checkout bagging up copious amounts of nibbles, cakes and booze. The checkout lady says ‘ Ooh are you having a party! You lucky thing!’ 

Here’s what I should have said: 

 ‘Actually my Dad just died and all of this is for my family and me (mainly me) to drown our sorrows after the funeral. I don’t need to be doing this but I need something to keep me busy or else I would have to deal with my feelings.’ And then I would make a scene by ugly crying while swigging from one of the wine bottles.  

And what I actually said: 

‘Yes, I’m having a party.’ And then I went back to my car and cried. 

This exchange would never have happened if Mourning dress was still a social convention. Of course, I could wear all black but that wouldn't necessarily convey that I had recently suffered a loss, it would just convey that I am chic… or a vampire… or a chic vampire. There aren’t too many old school social conventions that I would want to revive; however, certain parts of formal mourning are, in my opinion, due a revamp.  

So, what is traditional Mourning? 

After the death of a close family member or friend it has been a tradition for centuries in many parts of the western world to wear black for varying periods of time, to communicate that they have suffered a loss. However, during the Victorian period, Mourning and all the social conventions that went with it, were at their peak. This was for several reasons but the high death rate, rise of the middle classes and the wider availability of reliable Black clothing dyes contributed heavily to its popularity. Queen Victoria herself, was the poster girl for Mourning, famously remaining in mourning and seclusion for many years after her husband, Prince Albert's death. 

Mourning conventions varied and were dependent on class, location, religion and relationship to the deceased. For example, an upper class widow could stay in Mourning clothing for several years whereas a working class widow who had not the means for Mourning wear may show no outward grieving at all. The Mourning period also limited which social occasions the Mourner could attend. Dancing and other frivolities were a no go. Those who disregarded the expected conventions could become social outcasts. 

What is Mourning wear? 

Portrait of a woman in mourning clothes
Picture of a black mourning dress
Photograph of a child’s mourning outfit















Mourning dresses were usually Matt black with very little decoration and covered as much skin as possible. Full head veils were also common. At least accessorizing was one less thing the Victorian widow had to worry about. Half mourning, which was the transition period between full mourning and normal dress, allowed for Silks, more trimmings and brighter colours such as grey and purple. Men, as well as wearing dark colours, might also wear an armband of black fabric

Accessorizing grief 

Black necklace
‘Hair is a symbol of life because it does not decompose after death. Mourners often wore jewelry made from their loved ones' hair as a continual reminder of their lives together.’
Brooch containing locks of hair














Here are some examples of mourning jewelry, some containing the hair of the dead loved one. At first, that might sound a bit strange but in a time when photographs and portraits were not easy to come by, being able to remember the colour of your loved ones' hair might give some comfort. And it’s no stranger than turning someone's ashes into a diamond or a painting which we can do today.

The Benefits of Mourning dress. 

Although full length dresses, veils and hairy bracelets may be a bit excessive nowadays (For some anyway, I think I could rock a full length Veil), wearing something to outwardly communicate grief may have real benefits.  

  1. It can limit awkward conversations, saving both parties from an uncomfortable situation. For example; when someone asks me how my dad is and I have to answer that he is dead; I want the ground to swallow me up and I would imagine the other person does too. 

  1. It can communicate the reason for unusual behavior without having to have the conversation, saving the mourner some embarrassment. I have cried in a swimming pool, a library and a bed shop. Not my proudest moments but I did get free pillows from the bed shop because the sales assistant felt sorry for me. 

  1. A way to communicate to groups that you have suffered a loss and to give you space. Mourners still have to go back to work, drop their kids at school and go to their kids after school activities where, small talk can feel like torture even on a good day.  

  1. If we see a stranger in Mourning, we can give them a thought, send them some good vibes and take some time to appreciate the people in our lives we hold dearest. 

These last couple of years have seen too much loss and more people than ever living in Grief. Unfortunately, I doubt Mourning clothes will catch on again; however, we can all try to be more mindful of the person sitting next to us on the bus, queuing in the supermarket or serving us in a pub. Who knows what they are going through. Kindness costs nothing but it is worth its weight in gold mourning rings.   

Ring with a flower motif









For more Mourning objects check out the Amgueddfa Cymru Collections online


10 April 2022, 05:35
I totally agree that Mourning dress, of some sort, should make a come back. I have often thought that those in history had something powerful with that external means of communicating grief and loss. There is also something to be said about those in the past who could openly wail and rend their garments as a sign of grief. More acceptance in society today for a person to grieve openly wouldn't go astray. Thank you for sharing your personal loss in this blog. Words fail at times like that.

Comments are currently unavailable. We apologise for the inconvenience.