The death of Prince Albert in 1861 changed British society and its attitude to death forever. The grief-stricken Queen Victoria retreated into a life of endless mourning that, today, seems spectacularly self-indulgent, and a cult of death sprang up around her.
Rigid codes were instituted around mourning: social activities for the bereaved were very much curtailed, and people outwardly displayed their misery by wearing clothing whose style and colour was dictated by etiquette guides such as The Queen or Cassell’s.
And the period of mourning, and its outward expression, were rigorously prescribed depending on the relationship between the deceased and the surviving relative.
Women who lost their husbands were expected to be in full mourning – head-to-toe black – for a year and a day, before moving into half-mourning, which allowed the introduction of white, grey, or muted colours such as mauve or lavender.
What we often think of as Victorian dresses were in fact usually a skirt with a separate bodice top. The amount of fabric demanded by the full-length skirts made them the more expensive part of the outfit, so they would often be worn with different tops to create more than one outfit.
And our two exhibits this week show that it wasn’t always grim for the Victorian widow. Many wore ‘widow’s weeds’ – plain outfits of crape, an unforgiving fabric that didn’t allow any embellishment.
The widow who wore these two bodices was clearly of the merrier variety. The one on the left is a day bodice – quite severe and modestly styled, but still beautifully decorated with black glass beads.
And on the right is an evening bodice – considerably more daring, with its shorter sleeves and glittering décolletage. This woman may have been bereaved, but she would still have looked pretty glamorous. She would also have been allowed to adorn herself with diamonds – deemed as colourless, and therefore acceptable – as well as the more sombre jet jewellery we usually associate with the Victorian widow.
We’ll be looking at some examples of jet jewellery next week.
And if you’re interested in learning more about Victorian costume and accessories as they related to mourning, come along on the next store tour.
Starting at Scarborough Art Gallery at 2pm on Tuesday 28 May, it will be led by Assistant Operations Manager Julie Baxter, who will look at mourning protocol before and after the death of Prince Albert. Booking is highly recommended, please call 01723 374753.