The Abuse of Mourning: 1906

mourning toque of English crepe with silk veil 1906
1906 mourning toque with crape plumes.

The Abuse of Mourning,

Clara Morris

“Is the wearing of mourning a folly, a cruelty and an act of hypocrisy?” So a woman impulsively burst forth the other day.

And, looking at her inky raiment. I replied: “You are better fitted to answer that question than I am. since you are swathed in it and must know your own motive.” But she swiftly corrected: “I am swathed in black, but not in mourning, for I grieve not at all.”

I was repelled. She saw it and went on: “Yes; I have that same feeling. I shrink from my own act; my self-respect is weakened, since I assumed mourning for purely conventional reasons; because, though formal and unnatural, it is the customary usage of social life, and I dared not face all the petty comments, the on-dits of friends and watchful neighbors that would have followed my failure to do mourning for my own uncle, though he was unworthy and unloved. So I have bowed to the great law unwritten and as a result recognize myself a coward and a hypocrite.”

“You are as severe upon yourself,” I said, “as if you stood alone in your unhappy pretence, instead of being but one of the rank and file of a veritable army of black-draped, conventional mourners, with fares of frowning impatience or of sullen endurance that stamp that woeful garb a mere pretence of sorrow. You are sensitive, and suffer much because you lacked the courage of your convictions. But Heaven grant the last, worst, punishment be spared you!  For, oh! my friend, should some one near and dear–some one most tenderly beloved by you–be taken from you and hidden away in the breast of mother Earth, and you longed to give some outer sign of your passion or grief and loss, nothing would be left you but to don the black wrapping (“Oh. Don’t! don’t!” she gasped) that your own act has turned into an expression of hypocrisy.”

How long are we all to slavishly bow to this unwritten law of mourning, which forces us to adopt a custom inartistic and unsanitary, a blot upon the beauty of the world. a depression upon the nerves and spirits of the entire family, and very often a cruel tax upon the purse, for “mourning” and debt are only too often interchangeable terms. Why can we not break away from this tyrannical old law? There are women who, being widowed, abandon colors utterly and absolutely, just as some mourning mothers find a sorry comfort in wearing densest black as an outward expression of “that within which passeth show,” and their sincerity lends dignity and pathos to the mourning garb. But only think of the thousands who, for aunt or uncle, cousin (distant or near) or for relatives by marriage, resentfully don the purely conventional mourning, that they hate as a restraint and loathe as unbecoming.

1905 man with mourning band on sleeve
Man with mourning band on sleeve, Richard Norris Wolfenden, 1905

Why may we not adopt in such cases the mourning band about the arm, securely stitched to the left sleeve of coat or jacket? It is too modest to mar either costume or suit, while it quietly and effectively announces our loss and expresses our respect.

The etiquette of mourning, like the man who drinks, or is addicted to drugs, demands a steady “tapering off”.” You should pass from crape to plain black–thence to black and white–thence to lavender and gray, and thus gently glide into blues, pinks, etc. But sometimes the deepest mourning is the briefest.

A Mr. Wolfe was visiting my neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Mozart. Mrs. Wolfe was the eldest daughter of Mrs. Mozart, and she, big, handsome woman as she was, died very suddenly. Thereupon Mr. Wolfe became a veritable pillar of black clothing, shirt studs, cuff buttons, tie. gloves, but oh, his hat! The entire neighborhood opened its windows and looked out at that mighty crape band, that actually rose slightly above the crown of his very high hat. We never could be quite sure in Thirty -second street whether a thunder shower was coming up or Mozart’s son-in-law was turning the corner. Well, in four weeks, he took to looking up at the upper window before he rang the bell, in six he brought home violets and waved them at the window before he rang, and in eight weeks the engagement was announced of Mr. Wolfe and the next Mozart daughter, Essie.

“If,” said Mrs. Mozart. “‘it was any other woman, we would have hard feelings, but Essie is so like Leonie it seems all natural and right.”

And so preparations were rushed, as the impetuous widower wooer’s home and business were in Mexico; but Mr. Wolfe bethought him to order his man to remove the crape panoply of woe from his hat. Whereupon he carefully examined it in its nudity, and thus delivered himself: “Take this hat and have it ironed for the wedding. I can’t wear a silk hat in Mexico, and I stand a chance of denting a new one if packed for a journey.” Then sharply added: “What have you thrown that crape down for? Let me have it!”

And he brushed it with his own hands, carefully rolling it over a small ruler, quilted the pins into it, and said; “There, pack that. These Mozarts are big and handsome, but they go off quick, and Mexico is an awful hot place. Oh. Essie, dear, how did the wedding dress fit?” and he kissed her as warmly as though he was not cannily saving crape for her possible death.

When this story had crossed all the back fences, no one doubted the tales of his wealth, for a man like that would get rich with both hands tied behind him. But undoubtedly that abuse of mourning added much to my personal dislike of the custom, which I had already held to be unwise In the extreme.

There is a certain charming lady of world-wide celebrity as an educator, whose for-true home is in Indianapolis, and she lost a lover-husband. who was also brother, guide, companion, friend–in very deed he was her world. In his lifetime he had strenuously opposed the mourning habit; from the sanitary, the artistic, even the religious, standpoint he condemned the wearing of black. Yet, like every other loving, grieving woman, she felt the need of some outward expression of inner sorrow.

“Oh.” she exclaimed, “the dense hopeless despair that black expresses! I have a blessed hope, deep in my heart; but all the color and brightness of my world seems to be misted over–all is gray, gray.”

grey crape half mourning hat Maria Feodorovna c. 1900s
Grey crape mourning hat for Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, c. 1906

She broke off suddenly; a faint smile crept across her lips, a certain decision of manner came to her. Her dressmaker was summoned, her positive orders given to that amazed artist, and from that hour to this, though the conventional period of mourning has long passed, still that loyal loving widow has faced the criticising world and gone her busy, ever-famous way, clothed all in soft pale gray. Whether in heavy cloth and fur for winter wear, or full evening or dinner dress, with lace and pearls, she is ever and always in the pale gray that, she says, best expresses her; ‘for I am not hopeless, I do not despair because my beloved has gone away, but my life is very, very gray, and must be so to the end. No, I shall never change,” she says, with a patient smile; “when the final summons comes I shall still be wearing gray.”

The Pittsburg [PA] Press 3 June 1906: p. 41


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 Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.  And visit her newest blog The Victorian Book of the Dead.

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