Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Funeral and mourning clothing

Alison Petch,
Researcher 'The Other Within' project

A funeral is the ceremony marking a person's death. Today, the single most recognized funeral clothing worn by mourners in England is the 'black tie' worn by males of which the museum owns a single example [ 2002.26.1] which was donated by a member of staff, Jeremy Coote. This item is displayed at the bottom of Case 41.B - Body Arts - Death and Mourning in the Lower Gallery.

Twentieth-century etiquette demanded that people attending a funeral wore semi-formal clothing, which for adult men would usually mean a suit and tie in dark colours. The most traditional colour, considered to be the most respectful, was solid black, especially for the tie. Nowadays, special dress or behaviour is not required of those in mourning and even the wearing of black at funerals is declining. Most commentators date the association of black clothing with funerals to Roman custom when dark coloured togas were worn during the mourning period

During Victorian times, black clothing was worn for the funeral and for a year following the death ('deep mourning') by close relatives, gradually being replaced by other dark colours ('half mourning'), often purple or dark green trimmed with black. After a suitable period of time, the person would 'come out of mourning', and wear bright colours again. The closer relation the mourner was, the more mourning costume was prescribed and the longer the period of deep mourning. Widows wore 'widow's weeds', black, concealing clothes and heavy veils of black crêpe, usually for more than a year. All items of clothing were affected by the rules of mourning, including accessories like handkerchiefs, umbrellas, hats and shoes. As Briggs has commented:

'The whole rhythm of dress conventions could be disturbed by funerals which did not obey the dictates of the calendar. 'The finer shades of mourning', we learn, 'were the test of the Perfect Lady.' Even at weddings, where only brides worse veils, many wedding dresses were grey or lavender coloured, not white, as a sign of half mourning.' [Briggs, 1988: 265]

Many costume museum collections in the UK contain numerous examples of the black or dark coloured mourning costumes worn by men, women and children for up to two years after the death of a relative. Mourning clothes were governed by agreed etiquette and many guides to behaviour set down the strict rules which governed all aspects of mourning costume. Such rules were even included in children's periodicals of the time:

'Writing to a correspondent in 1880, the paper had informed a young reader: 'Very little children are not "put into mourning" as it is termed ...'. In 1888 'a lady dressmaker' informed readers that widows need not wear a mourning cap and veil after the first six months but a large muslin collar should be worn for a year.' [Dixon, 1989: 145 giving extracts from the Girl's Own Paper ]

According to Arnold [2007: 207, 209]:

'[A widow] would wear deep mourning for at least one year, consisting of black clothes made from a non-reflective fabric such as bombazine ... Once a widow had completed her first year, she dressed in 'secondary mourning'. This had a less rigorous dress code, and white collars and cuffs ... were permitted. After nine months came 'ordinary mourning', a three month stretch during which women were permitted to wear shiny fabrics such as silk and velvet ... Finally a widow entered the six months of 'half-mourning', when muted colours such as grey, purple and lilac were permissible.'

Victorian mourning costume has always been regarded in terms of gross expenditure and elaborate etiquette, and, according to one source, 'snobbery, social climbing and profits of the mourning industry.' [Jalland, 1989: 171] So all encompassing was this tradition that entire businesses survived on providing only mourning clothing and accessories. Since the Victorian age many critics have considered this mourning excessive, one critic going so far as to describe ''the congealed and morbid romanticism' of the nineteenth century, when a show of exaggerated grief was a mark of gentility'. [John Morley, 1971 quoted in Jalland, 1989: 171] A more benevolent view of mourning costume might be that it indicated to other members of society that the mourner was suffering from 'depressive withdrawal' because of grief. [Jalland, 1989: 184] Wearing mourning costume indicated the different social status of the mourner, who was expected not to accept social invitations for the first year.

[Caption: Small child wearing mourning, Brighton 1870s. Courtesy of Platt Hall, Manchester Art Gallery.]

[Caption: Woman wearing mourning dress and white cap with 'weepers' York 1860. Courtesy of Platt Hall, Manchester Art Gallery.]

The Museum's collections contain many examples of clothing and accessories in black. None of these are definitely mourning costume, but it seems likely that some at least were used for this purpose. For example 1949.9.47 - a silk sunshade with a cane handle, covered in black silk and dating from 1835-1845 from Essex, collected by Miss M.E. Bullock and donated by Margaret F. Irvine or 1944.8.227, another black silk sunshade, this time donated by Miss Watters. A black silk shawl, triangular with fringe and embroidery from the mid nineteenth century was donated by Estella Louisa Michaela Canziani.

Further Reading

Catharine Arnold 2007 Necropolis: London and its dead London Pocket Books

Asa Briggs 1988 Victorian Things London B.T. Batsford Ltd

Diana Dixon 1989 'The two faces of death: Children's magazines and their treatment of death in the nineteenth century' in Ralph Houlbrooke [ed] Death, Ritual and Bereavement Routledge, London

Pat Jalland 1989 'Death, grief and mourning' in Ralph Houlbrooke [ed] Death, Ritual and Bereavement Routledge, London

 Death Objects  

The Pitt Rivers Museum has many objects in it's collections that are related to the subject of death from all over the world, including England. Some of these are discussed in tthe following articles.


Birth and death are the only certainties for all humans, and every culture has had customs and practices associated with burials and with the mourning of family and friends. Many of the English items in the Pitt Rivers Museum in this category come from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries when there was a very strong interest in the customs associated with death and mourning. It is said that this interest was fostered by Queen Victoria's response to the death of her husband, Albert, in 1861. She wore mourning for the rest of her long life. Victorian society, at least from the 21st century perspective, appears to have been excessively governed by formal rules of etiquette. This was as true for matters relating to death as with all other areas of social life.

Attitudes to death in England have changed considerably since Victorian times. Where once it was commonplace and acceptable to wear ornaments made from the enduring parts of relatives' corpses (that is, hair) it has come to seem unsavoury. We have now generally become more squeamish about death, we are much less likely to view the bodies of even close relatives once they are dead. At one time, it would have been expected that neighbours and friends, as well as relatives, would have visited the corpse before interment.

All cultural values are relative and shift over time and space, but in relation to death some of these values have changed greatly over relatively small periods of time, or short distances. Even today, for example, the relationship the English have with the dead is different from that experienced in Scotland or Ireland. The following web pages examine only those practices and artefacts relating to death in and from England.