Monday, May 31, 2010

The other mourning color.

Norman Hartnell had a long history of designing for the British royal family, and for good reason - his designs were beautiful. He had a few bumps along the way, though, like the time he had a dress completed for Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, only to have it remain unworn because King George VI's ire was raised when the press printed the description before it was actually seen in public.

No more challenging situation was faced by Mr. Hartnell than in 1938, when the king and queen were scheduled for a state visit to Paris. The designs were completed, the garments in production, when suddenly the queen's mother, the Countess of Strathmore, passed away three weeks before the trip. What to do, what to do.

Though the trip was postponed, it couldn't be cancelled, but seeing the queen dressed in the black of deep mourning would not make for good press, and would bring a sad facade to the visit that the royal family didn't want to present. Meetings were held, at which Mr. Hartnell presented an option that I didn't know existed: white as a mourning color.

I think that most of us, when thinking of mourning, think of black. Black crepe especially, but black satins as well, though today the black could be in almost any fabric. What I never realized, but thankfully Mr. Hartnell did, was that white was an alternate mourning color. Though purple was also a mourning color used by the royal family, they felt that for this trip, the queen would not stand out in the crowd enough in a purple frock. The royal family generally dressed in light colors when in crowds, as the throngs of spectators tended to dress in darker, day dress colors. Lighter colors stood out better, and what better light color than white? White also solved the problem of trying to complete a wardrobe in two weeks, because the fabrics would not have to be dyed, nor the buttons or trims and laces. Problem solved.

And so it was that the queen appeared in this beautiful frock, complete with lacy parasol. She was so endeared on this visit that she brought forth a resurgence of parasols simply by opening hers. Deep mourning? Yes. But sacrifice the royal image? No.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


On May 7, 2010, the world lost a real character when my brother in law James passed away. He was a one of a kind -- as evidenced by his memorial service, where everyone in the family told stories of the funny things he did -- including one year way back when he received a bunch of checks as Christmas gifts from customers on his paper route. He reciprocated with gifts of checks, written in yellow marker, from his sister's checking account. Yep, James was one of a kind.

We've had a lot of discussions about mourning around here since James' untimely passing. We've talked about how rushed people are now, thinking that once the funeral is over, life should go back to normal and "move on." Simply put, we've lost the right to mourn.

There used to be rules about mourning. It was almost an art form, really, with rules about what to wear, how to decorate, and how to conduct oneself. We don't have that anymore, and I mourn the passing of mourning itself, as I think that it serves a purpose.

My 1929 Vogue Book of Etiquette devotes an entire chapter to mourning. Here are some excerpts:

  • Blinds in the house are drawn so that "outsiders with trivial errands may not intrude."
  • Bells ties with streamers of mourning ribbon (white for children, lavender for middle years, and black for adult) signalled to those who wanted to ring the bell that a death had occurred, in case they missed the signal of the blinds.
  • Mourning borders on stationery for those who have lost a close relative (parent, child, spouse, sibling) would be wide, with narrow borders for those who lost a more distance relation.
  • Men were never required to mourn sa deeply as women, probably because they had to go right back to work -- sound familiar? Chin up and all that. Men didn't universally wear black, either, unless they lost a wife or child. They usually just wore a black armband, four inches deep, on the left arm of a suitcoat.
  • Length of mourning was generally a year, and the remainder of the time was individualized. Widows' deep mourning lasted a year by 1929, followed by another year of "lighter" or "half" mourning. Older widows may have chosen to wear black, gray or lavender mourning clothing for the rest of their live, however. Mourning clothing was not supposed to be stylish. Long mourning veils were not commonly seen as they were in Victorian days, except at the funeral. After that, as soon as the woman was able to "keep her composure," shorter net veils were substituted.
  • Women could wear pearls in mourning, but in general, the jewelry was black jet.
  • Lastly, women in mourning would not find it "suitable" to attend balls, parties of any type, large diners, or the opera from the "social circle of a box." They could, however, go to a concert in the late afternoon, a play or to the opera in seats - as long as the first few months of mourning were over.

In general, just about everything we did in the past two weeks would have been unsuitable in 1929. I'm not going to fret though, because I know that James (and my mother in law as well) were looking down and smiling.

Dress available at Damn Good Vintage. Is it mourning clothing? You decide. I can see it both ways, but I suspect it may have been.