My latest heroine, Lucy Lawrence, is newly widowed and resisting some of the more stringent customs imposed upon her. Unsurprisingly, mourning rules and customs affected women more than men and an entire industry grew up around it. Many made their fortunes due to regulations and superstitions we would now laugh at. These specialist shops or warehouses popped up everywhere, and all because Queen Victoria (the ‘Widow of Windsor’) took to black on Prince Albert’s death and never took it off again.
These Magasins de Deuil, such as Jay’s London General Mourning Warehouse and Peter Robinson’s Court and General Mourning Warehouse on Regent Street, did brisk business. Not least because of the popular notion that mourning clothes should be destroyed once the appropriate period of mourning was over – otherwise it was considered to be tempting fate. What a winning notion at a time of high mortality rates! It was only in the 1880s that Jay’s diversified as demand for huge quantities of crape began to ease.
The range of mourning items was vast, from clothes and undergarments to handkerchiefs and parasols. No self-respecting widow would go without these essentials. My Lucy, on finding herself in Jay’s on Regent Street, decides to buy a mourning handkerchief. On taken to a display, she sees a fine array of every conceivable style.
Mourning handkerchiefs were made from cambric, a plain, soft linen fabric, sometimes also woven in cotton, with a slight lustrous finish on the face of the cloth. Originally from the French commune of Cambrai, it was woven in many grades from fine to coarse.
Initially, these handkerchiefs were white with a plain black border with a minimum depth of one and a half inches during the first period of mourning (a year and a day).
Sylvia’s Home Journal advised the need for ‘Twelve handkerchiefs with black borders, for ordinary use, cambric’ and ‘Twelve of finer cambric for better occasions’. Decoration, in the form of black edging, took a number of forms from plain printed or woven borders to black embroidery. But advice varied, with some sources insisting on plain black handkerchiefs, particularly in the first year.
As the period of mourning progressed, the border became shallower. There is a beautiful example of a Queen Victoria mourning handkerchief in the V&A with a beautiful scalloped edge of black. http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O78868/handkerchief-unknown/
Some examples of these items are quite pretty with delicate lace edging, embroidery or netting.
The handkerchiefs were often monogrammed In Loving Memory with the deceased’s name or initials.
With the endless reminders of your loved one, it must have been difficult to get through the various stages of mourning. Victorian society’s celebration of death was a heavy burden for the widows of the time.
You can follow Lucy’s adventure later this year when No Stone Unturned will be published.
Note: The featured image – Empress Eugénie in mourning for her son, 1880 – was sourced from Wikipedia and is in the Public Domain.