In mourning, I wanted a uniform of grief


My sister was the one to care about clothes. After she died, I began to notice how little we do to signal our grief.

Grieving Victorians in upper-middle-class society once wore mourning clothes as a public demonstration of their private losses. The rules on what to wear, and for how long, depended on the relationship of the griever to the grieved. A spouse or a sibling rated higher than a third cousin or a workplace “connection.” This determination was so complex that popular etiquette guides such as “Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management” contained lengthy charts that the grief-stricken might consult.

These rules were primarily for women of the age. Men got off light, with black gloves, cravats and bands on their hats and arms. But a woman who was grieving, let’s say, a departed husband, would begin in “full mourning,” meaning that for “1 year and 1 day” she would wear “bombazine covered with crepe; widow’s cap, lawn cuffs, collars.”

All black, all the time, naturally. Letters were sent on special black-bordered paper and envelopes sealed with black wax.

After the allotted 366 days, she’d move into “second mourning,” a six-month phase that involved slightly less crepe. That would be followed by six more months of “ordinary mourning,” reintroducing fabrics of silk and wool. During the final months, jewelry and ribbons again became permissible, as a segue into the ultimate six months of “half mourning,” when colors such as gray, lavender and mauve would gradually re-enter the wardrobe.

I was fond of showing this chart to my literature students when we reached the Victorian section of the syllabus, hoping to impress upon them the inflexible, even oppressive, social order to which a 6-year-old girl like Alice in “Alice in Wonderland” would soon be expected to conform, as well as the commonplace nature of death and grieving in a society where illness and wars took people, especially the young, at a regular clip.

But after my younger sister, Jennifer, died from cancer at the age of 22, I came to see things differently.

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