Shroud for a Robe de Nuit
Out in Anaconda, Mont., a rosy, healthy, buxom girl, fresh from her father’s ranch, was making some purposes for her approaching wedding. In company with her mother, she entered one of the principal stores of the city. Neither she nor her mother made any secret of the coming wedding or the object of their shopping tour. It was a great event in their lives, and they took the salesman in the general store quite into their confidence.
“Now,” said mamma, when they had bought a bill that was going to cost papa many a fat steer, “now we want to look at some nightgowns. We want the very nicest thing you’ve got.” The faithful salesman began to pull down the stock. He exhibited all the prettiest things he could find, but nothing suited—the garments were all too plain and unornamental to suit the demands of the mother and bride-to-be. There are limitations to a cow town general store stock, but there are resources as well. The clerk was a man of resources, and when almost at his wits’ end one of his bright ideas came to him. Excusing himself for a moment, he went to another part of the store, rummaged among the boxes and came back with a gorgeous thing of lace and insertion and filmy fabric.
“The very thing,” declared mamma. “Why didn’t you show us that in the first place?”
“Well, you see, ma’am,” said he, “I forgot we had them in stock. We’ve only got two of them, though. Do you think they will do?”
“Do!” exclaimed the girl. “of course they will do. They are just what we wanted.”
So the clerk calmly added 200 per cent to the cost price he found on them, packed the garments in a box and sent the mother and daughter on their way rejoicing.
“Say,” said the salesman to the proprietor, when that gentleman came in half an hour later, “I sold them funeral shrouds that you got stuck with. Sold ‘em to a bride for her trousseau.”
But the bride never knew.
Times-Picayune [New Orleans, LA] 23 January 1902: p. 10
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil is not at all surprised by the story above. There is a strange element of sensuality in writings about burial fashions. Women’s burial robes, with their embellishments of lace and embroidery, are lovingly described in the same language used in the fashion magazines for wedding gowns or for tea gowns, so essential to afternoon seductions. It was as if defunct ladies were dressed to seduce Death Himself.
Scores of boxes, just such as those which New York modistes send home ball dresses announced next day in “Society” columns as a creation by Worth—were uncovered to show examples of the present prevailing styles in shrouds. This is a ghastly name by no means suited to the tasteful burial robes displayed. There was not a hint of winding sheet or cerement in their style. They seemed, indeed, like a la mode demi-toilettes…One of these, which the reporter saw, folded in its box, was of fine cream tinted cashmere, made like a matinee or tea gown, the front traversed by diagonal folds of satin the same shade and ruchings, quillings of the same extended from shoulders to knees, below which were plaited flounces. The sleeves were fully trimmed, and the robe was entirely ready for wear with fine full crepe lisse ruchings at throat and wrists. A carelessly knotted sash of ribbon confined the robe. This cost only $25. Another, of handsome black cashmere, had a front with black satin revers quillings and pipings as heading for falls of black Spanish lace, the skirts ending in flat kilted flounces. A sash of broad brocaded ribbon fell in long lops on one side. White crepe lisse was added inside the lace at neck and hands. The price of this was $50…A woman’s white cashmere robe here was trimmed with satin in Grecian folds, and down the front accurately laid puffs were bordered by machine embroidery, a tiny flower resting in each scallop. The edge of the skirt was composed of broad alternate side kilting of satin and cashmere headed by the embroidery. The New York Herald 11 May 1884: p. 8
Then there was this ingenious lady, who saw the street-wear potential of a garment for the grave:
STOLE A SHROUD TO WEAR
An Atchison Woman Trimmed a Burial Robe and Used It.
Atchison [Kansas] Dispatch to Chicago Tribune.
Burial robes for street dresses is the latest fad, as introduced by an Atchison woman. J.A. Harouff, a local undertaker, missed a woman’s burial robe the other day. Yesterday afternoon he saw a woman on Commercial street wearing the robe. She had adorned with a few fancy frills and trimmings, but there was no doubt as to the identity of the robe, and Mr. Harouff says the dress was a “mighty stylish looking gown.” The undertaker was so astonished that he has decided not to ask for the return of his property. “A woman with that much nerve and ingenuity deserves a reward, no punishment,” he said today. The Washington [DC] Post 17 August 1914: p. 6
Mrs Daffodil has written about the “death drawers,” containing a complete trousseau of death-wear and many other stories on the material culture of mourning. See the “mourning” category for more of this funereal subject. Mrs Daffodil can also recommend the “mourning” posts over at Haunted Ohio (including one on the girl shroud-makers of New York) and in the associated book: The Victorian Book of the Dead, which also has its own “Face-book” page, updated daily.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.