Following Queen Victoria’s example, it became customary for families to go through elaborate rituals to commemorate their dead. This included wearing mourning clothes, having a lavish (and expensive) funeral, curtailing social behaviour for a set period of time, and erecting an ornate monument on the grave.
Mourning clothes were a family’s outward display of their inner feelings. The rules for who wore what and for how long were complicated, and were outlined in popular journals or household manuals such as The Queen and Cassell’s – both very popular among Victorian housewives. They gave copious instructions about appropriate mourning etiquette. If your second cousin died and you wanted to know what sort of mourning clothes you should wear and for how long, you consulted The Queen or Cassell’s or other manuals.
For deepest mourning clothes were to be black, symbolic of spiritual darkness. Dresses for deepest mourning were usually made of non-reflective paramatta silk or the cheaper bombazine – many of the widows in Dickens’ novels wore bombazine. Dresses were trimmed with crape, a hard, scratchy silk with a peculiar crimped appearance produced by heat. Crape is particularly associated with mourning because it doesn’t combine well with any other clothing – you can’t wear velvet or satin or lace or embroidery with it. After a specified period the crape could be removed – this was called “slighting the mourning.” The colour of cloth lightened as mourning went on, to grey, mauve, and white – called half-mourning. Jewelery was limited to jet, a hard, black coal-like material sometimes combined with woven hair of the deceased.
Men had it easy – they simply wore their usual dark suits along with black gloves, hatbands and cravats. Children were not expected to wear mourning clothes, though girls sometimes wore white dresses.
The length of mourning depended on your relationship to the deceased. The different periods of mourning dictated by society were expected to reflect your natural period of grief. Widows were expected to wear full mourning for two years. Everyone else presumably suffered less – for children mourning parents or vice versa the period of time was one year, for grandparents and siblings six months, for aunts and uncles two months, for great uncles and aunts six weeks, for first cousins four weeks.