By Marie Walker and Ragan Foley
Unlike in like the modern era, the rules and expectations for mourning in the Regency Period in England had many societal expectations, yet they were not as strict as they would be in future Victorian England. While it was regarded more for the upper class and there were more rigid rules for widows and widowers as opposed to friends and acquaintances, the mourning rituals took the form of clothing, mourning accessories, and different stages. These traditions are all prevalent throughout the period and appear in the works of Jane Austen. It is important to keep in mind that there were not mandated laws for mourning. Any display of mourning was done at a family’s or person’s discretion. However, these customs were social norms, that, if not followed, might raise some eyebrows and could call into question your love or respect for the deceased.
The most noticeable mourning ritual in regency England was clothing. This was a visible representation of grief, but also a visible representation of wealth. Having clothes that displayed your mourning was a ritual more easily carried out by the upper class since they could afford to have a mourning wardrobe made. The upper class could purchase fashionable mourning outfits based off plates from magazines such as the Ackermann’s Repository or La Belle Assemblee. It is also important to note that wearing a black dress did not necessarily mean a person was in mourning. It was a practical color that does not easily show dirt or stains, yet it would be incredibly odd to wear full mourning regalia if no one you loved or were acquainted with had died.
Most people, though, made mourning clothes from clothing they already had. Jane Austen wrote about her mother in 1808:
“My Mother is preparing mourning for Mrs E. K. – she has picked her old silk pelisse to pieces, & means to have it dyed black for a gown – a very interesting scheme.”
An existing wardrobe could be changed into a mourning wardrobe by adding new linings to cloaks and pelisses, covering existing bonnets with new pieces of crepes, and dying old dresses black. Gentlemen might add a crepe sash to their top hats to indicate that they were in mourning. This piece of cloth would be called a “weeper”. The length of the weeper indicated social status through how much fabric they could afford. Another way men would outwardly show they were in mourning, especially men in the military, would be to wear a black armband to signify that someone they loved had died. Through these methods, people were able to alter entire wardrobes to reflect the mourning of a loved one. It would also indicated how much money they had to outwardly display their grief in an effort to “mourn well”.
Mourning accessories also became popular during this era. Hair jewelry with woven hair of the deceased loved one and small portraits of a painted eye of a loved one were standard. These evolved into an art, with intricate brooches and pedants woven from fine human hair and realistic eyes depicted on charms. These accessories were typically reserved for half mourning and beyond, though if they were of black amber they could be worn in full mourning. It is improtant to note that a lovers eye pendant did not always indicate that a loved one had died. These could also be love tokens between living people. Once more these accessories were another representation of wealth in this period and could be worn for a lifetime.
Regency Era England had two stages of formal mourning full mourning and half mourning. The first stage of full mourning included more rigid rules for how the mourner dressed and interacted with society. Women wore dull black dresses covered in crepe or wore black bombazine silk. The silk had a matte finished that created a demure look compared to the sheen of regular silk. Women also converted their narrow hems on their dresses into broad hems. Only matte black jewelry made with jet or black amber could be worn and black was the only acceptable color in this first stage. Men wore black armbands, black gloves and some wore black cravats to signify that they were in full mourning. Though most of the time men would just wear a normal black day suit that they would have already had. Full mourning lasted one year and one day for widows and widowers before they could transfer into the half mourning. The reason for the one day after the year was because nothing should be changed on the one year anniversary of the death of the loved one. Widows were not supposed to dance or to go to the more frivolous and silly plays while in mourning.
Widows were not supposed to marry until a year had passed, but widowers were not held to the same standard. If a widower had small children, they were forgiven for breaking this custom and even expected to remarry soon. There were no rules about how long one should wait, but it was generally expected that a person should wait a year before remarrying. The degree of mourning was directly dependent on the perceived importance of the dead person. Spouces were considered the closest relation, so the public grief and length of full mourning was the longest. Infants were not typically considered as valuable to society, so they were mourned the least. There were also incredibly high infant mortality rates as most children did not survive infancy. Therefore, it they were mourned for a long period, everyone would always be in mourning. Immediate relatives such as parents or siblings, were given more attention than grandparents, cousins, or friends. There was no specified time for mourning for relations other than spouse, except if you were a member of the royal court. Men were criticized much less for such breach of propriety than women.
Half mourning was less rigid and the grievers could choose different colors to wear such as subdued grays, purples, lilacs, lavenders, and white, which had been the color of mourning during the medieval period. In this period, the griever had a wider choice of jewelry and jewelry made from the deceased hair were incredibly popular. These subdued colors of half mourning were installed in order to help an individual transition back to wearing bright colors after the all black period. There is no mention of half mourning attire for men, however there was mention of men wearing a white band or ribband (ribbon) on their hats to mourn a young girl. This period was meant to help the transition of mourners back into regular life and the customs were slightly more relaxed.
While there are few instances of formal mourning in Jane Austen’s works, it is important to state that Jane Austen herself was clearly aware of the norms of the era. In Sense and Sensibility, Mrs. Dashwood enters mourning (as seen in the 1995 film where she is dressed in all black) after the death of her husband. It is also fair to assume that the deaths of Anne Elliot’s and Emma’s mothers many years before the novels take place in Persuasion and Emma would have prompted their widower fathers into a state of formal mourning being from the upper class.
Mourning in the Regency era was an important societal custom. While it was later taken to rigid extremes in the Victorian era, mourning in the Regency period was an important display of class and wealth. Through clothing and accessories, people could display to the world their sense of mourning over a lost loved one. Widows and widowers were expected to show the most mourning, with the expectations falling even more heavily on a widow. The two stages of mourning, half mourning and full mourning, were intended to show a respectable amount of time in grief and then later help the mourner transition back into regular society. In all, the mourning customs of the era were a direct reflection of societal expectations and displays of wealth as much as grieving a lost loved one.
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