WHITE MOURNING GAINING FAVOR AS SYMBOL OF SORROW
Whether it be the weeds of woe dictated by the heart’s agony over the loss of a beloved one, or the conventional mourning imposed by state or custom, the sartorial symbols of grief vary with times, places and people. Only in deepest, most lusterless black have we Americans of the nineteenth century been able to show to the world how great was the loss imposed upon us by the death of those dear to us.
Since the twentieth century came in there has been a noticeable tendency toward the lightening of the outward gloom, the sign of our inward grief. An increasing number of persons have protested against donning prescribed mourning, and a still larger number, while adhering in the main to the old order, have modified it so as to make their mourning less oppressive to the wearer and to all beholders.
That black clothes are not the only means of expressing sorrow of the dead is evident if we take into consideration the mourning colors prevailing in other lands and in other times. White is the official mourning of China, as impressive and less depressing than our black. Violet, which we recognize as a minor degree of mourning, is deep mourning in Turkey. Shades of yellow, merging into brown, have expressed the sorrow for loss of life in several eastern countries, including Egypt and Persia. Blue and scarlet have also had sanction as mourning colors in the past.
So, intrinsically, the hue of the garb has no significance other than convention gives. If one has courage one may refuse to accept the dictum of convention. When it was announced recently that Mrs. Madeline Force Astor, the youthful widow of John Jacob Astor, would wear white instead of black, a sigh of relief went up from many who shrink from the somber robes and suffer from their discomforts in warm weather. If one of such social standing could so break with conventions others would surely follow her example. The announcement did not mean that Mrs. Astor would not wear any black during her period of mourning. On ceremonial occasions she will doubtless conform to the prevailing custom and wear black to escape being conspicuous, but she will have a supply of white gowns, hats and accessories which will be easily distinguishable form white wear which is not mourning. All of the white garments worn by her will be guiltless of sheen or luster. Flowers and lace are taboo; white crepe and all kinds of dull, soft white materials ware employed….
This summer more white appears in mourning outfits than has been seen for a long time. Most of it is intended, of course, for young girls and for persons who have completed the regulation period of “deep mourning.” What that period is depends upon adherence to the rules made by the combined opinions of milliners, modistes and public, especially that part of it that we call “society.” It is only slowly that the two years formerly religiously required of a widow for the wearing of crepe veil and all black outfit is being modified. Sticklers for etiquette still adhere to this rule. Greater elasticity in mourning apparel is allowed to other bereaved persons. A mother, a duaghter, a sister may shorten the period of her mourning and modify its lugubrious character with less reproach. Relatives of more remote degree are no longer compelled by censorious opinion to wear black unless their inclinations or interests dictate it….
Nothing is considered by the milliners real mourning except the heavy English crepe, although the dull silk nun’s veiling is preferred by many persons, not only because it is less expensive, but because they shrink from the feeling of crape. When the widow’s deep mourning is laid aside, Brussels or other net with a crepe border is substituted. This is also worn as first mourning by those of a lesser degree of kinship to the deceased.
White in mourning millinery makes its appearance in the becoming “widow’s cap.” Next it is found as the facing of the all black hat, which, by the way, is very popular this season. Then there are the lighter combinations of black and white; the white hat (dead white, it must be) with dull black roses or other flowers which may be worn with black or white gown; the dull black straw with trimming of white crepe or tulle and perhaps some such feather as the marabout, and the all-white hat to be worn with white frocks, especially by the young girl. These white hats are trimmed sometimes with a band and bow of white crepe or with French crepe, which, of course, expresses a less degree of mourning than the regular English crepe. Sometimes French crepe and lusterless white wings are used on a young girl’s hat.
White mourning veils are usually made of net with a white crepe order, the length of the veil and the width of the border indicating the period of mourning. Bands of white crepe on dull finished white gowns are correspondingly graduated….
White mourning gowns may be of any material that does not have a sheen, and they should always be guiltless of lace, embroidery or any sort of decorative garniture. Tucks, pleats and folds are the proper trimming. Inserts of net are also permissible. A handsome mourning costume of dull silk had the yoke made of a small figured net having almost the effect of crepe, but not so heavy. Bands of this net were also inserted in the skirt. The long coat to be worn with this gown was made of the same kind of silk, with folds, binding and buttons of the same.
Another gown was of the new dull finish Alaska satin trimmed with broad bands of white crape.
The various nets make very pretty summer gowns alone or in combination with thin silks or muslins. The tucks are varied in width and grouping to relieve the plain effect caused by lack of other trimming.
The white mourning accessories are shown in an attractive variety. For the deeper mourning white crape is used with good effect for neck and sleeve bands or for deep flat collars. In combination with tulle, French crepe, lawn and other thin white fabrics, it has a wider range of usefulness. These are used, too, without the crepe for mourning that is past its deepest stages, and are accounted proper mourning as long as they are made with a deep hem as a finish and with no more decoration than pleats or tucks afford.
White mourning parasols are made of lusterless silk, plain or with tucks, and have dull finished white handles.
The San Francisco [CA] Call 7 July 1912: p. 32
The fad for wearing white mourning received a decided impetus when Mrs. John Jacob Astor, whose husband was lost on the Titanic, donned it as an expression of her widowhood. Many women who already had a positive dislike to black mourning, followed her example, but the fact remains that black is more in consonance with the feelings of those in grief, while white mourning is passe at the present time and can be procured only with difficulty on special order.
Nevertheless, for certain climates and seasons, white mourning, when worn with white hats and costumes, is not only beautiful and suitable, but eminently smart. In California, or Florida, it may be worn appropriately by a young widow or young girl throughout the year.
White English crape is now made in the same perfection by Courtauld as the black, a secret process which that firm has not divulged for more than 100 years.
Very few white veils are made entirely of this white crape, but it is used as a border—one and one-half inch wide—on veils of white shadow mesh or craquele or filet, or hexagonal mesh, or Georgette crepe, or white Brussels net, and makes charming borders on white costumes, and on collars of white chiffon or Georgette crepe. Face-veils made of any sort of quiet-patterned mesh veiling, without figures, and bordered on one side and the two ends, is stylish and proper, when applied to an all-white hat and worn with an all-white costume. No flowers, not even white ones, are permissible, and no jewelry except a strand of pearls. White shoes or spats, stockings, handbag, gloves, handkerchief are absolutely de rigueur, if white mourning be attempted at all.
Millinery Trade Review, Volume 42, 1917
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: “White mourning,” only truly came into favour in the early 1910s. As noted, the young Mrs John Jacob Astor, who was only 19 when widowed in the Titanic disaster, set the trend. However, only about a decade earlier, the style was regarded with suspicion.
All-white crepe is now advocated by a New York fashion writers for widows during the summer. She says: “For a summer outfit for a young widow gowns trimmed with white crape, made of white crape, hat with a long white crape veil, a white crape parasol and everything to match, is immensely smart, and, be it added, very becoming.” Imagine such a thing! The uninitiated would surely wonder what a woman so attired was trying to impersonate. She would seem a cross between a bride, wandering about without her bridegroom, and a tragic actress doing Lady Macbeth off the stage.
The aforementioned New York writer of fashions must be possessed of a sense of humor which is, in vulgar parlance, “a dandy.”
There are widows to-day who do not wear mourning as is mourning at all, but at least they do not make themselves conspicuous in a bizarre costume like that described.
The white mourning costume is never likely to be popular until women lose their ideas of appropriateness altogether.
Charlotte [NC] Observer 1 July 1903: p. 7
“White mourning,” was known as the prerogative of royalty: the so-called deuil blanc, which we note in some portraits of Mary, Queen of Scots. A more recent manifestation of white mourning was the spectacular “White Wardrobe” created by Norman Hartnell in 1938 for her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth, whose mother died just before a state visit to France. And at the 2004 funeral of Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, her daughters all wore white mourning.
Portions of this post appear in The Victorian Book of the Dead.
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.