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.


  1. So very sorry for your loss. Thank you for the great information on mourning past.

  2. I think now we can mourn however we want, without constraints. A friend lost her father a few years ago. He was in a lovely hospice facility. He was in bed, with a few family and friends around. They turned away to let someone tell a story about him, and I guess the story was pretty funny because when they turned back around to see if he had heard, they realized he had died. But that's the way he would have wanted to go-with laughter and family around him.

  3. I'm very sorry for your loss. I know that I started to understand Victorian mourning customs much better after my own brother's sudden death in January of 2009. We had such an outpouring of support from the time of his death through the funeral, etc., but it seemed like as soon as the public part of mourning was over people expected you to just snap back to normal. It made me realize how much easier it might have made things to wear something that clearly communicated to others that something Really Big had happened in your life without having to say anything at all.

  4. My condolences to you and your family. I wondered why you weren't blogging recently. I think it's not that people "expect" you to return to normal (whatever that is) right away, but that they don't know what to do, or for how long. If we hear that someone lost a loved one 6 months ago, what is the appropriate response? Is it different than if we hear before a funeral? After? The old customs helped define and display mourning in a public way, as Bernadette said. Yes, I do think the pictured dress is likely a mourning dress.