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The Conventions of Mourning in America - 1910

Mourning Costumes 1900

By Eleanor Chalmers

The question of mourning in this country is one that nine people out of ten answers according to their own feelings and preferences. While almost everyone recognizes certain conventions, they are by no means so universally observed as they are in England.

A great many women who are thoroughly conversant with the usages of good society in regard to mourning ignore them entirely almost as a matter of principle.

We are fundamentally an unconventional people, we Americans, and to many of us, the symbolism of grief has no meaning whatsoever in the world to say that everyone should wear mourning for his or her deceased.

To my mind, it is a personal matter which each individual should answer for herself. But if it is worn, there is no reason why women should not know what is considered good form in regard to it.

I receive a great many letters from people asking me about the period and depth of mourning to be worn for different relatives. Of course, the most profound grief is that worn by a widow for her husband. A widow should wear deep mourning for a year or eighteen months.

During that time, she wears dull, lusterless materials, preferably Henrietta or cashmere, trimmed with crepe.  She wears a small Marie Stuart bonnet of black crepe with a ruching of white crepe next to the face. 

The crepe veil is attached to the back of the hat and is no longer worn over the face—an unwholesome custom both physically and mentally, which has fortunately gone out of style.

In second mourning, the crepe veil is replaced by one of silk grenadine edged with folds of crepe. In second mourning a widow lays aside crepe but wears dull-finished black fabrics for six months or a year. Many widows wear second mourning all their lives.

The widow’s ruché can be used at the brim of a small toque if one prefers that kind to a hat or bonnet.  Many of the small hats are under faced with white crepe.

Widow’s gowns should be made a simply and handsomely as possible. The material should be the best that one can afford, for poor black turns shabby very quickly.

As I said before, Henrietta and cashmere are the best materials for deep mourning, but peau de chine, crepe charmeuse, voile, broadcloth, Panama, and serge are also used.  For second mourning, the lighter, more diaphanous materials can be worn—chiffon and chiffon cloth, Ninon de soie, and the silk tissues.

Widows for first and second mourning wear deep cuffs and collars of very sheer white organdy or else of white crepe. The organdy cuffs and collars are never hemstitched and are very rarely even hemmed.

The hems are simply folded, and the cuffs and collars are basted to pieces of black crinoline or buckram cut to fit the neck and wrists. The hems are placed between the buckram and the cuffs.

The stiffening keeps the organdy from becoming mussed and makes the cuffs and collars set more neatly than they would without it.

The organdy cuffs are four and a half inches deep, finished. The hems are an inch and a half deep, and the space between them is an inch and a half. They can be sewed together at their back edges with three small pearl buttons. Of course, it is unnecessary to work buttonholes.

The depth of the collar depends on the neck. It is generally two inches deep, finished with a hem three-quarters of an inch deep. The white crepe sets are sometimes made of bias folds of the crepe fagoted together or used at the edges of tucked lawn or net cuffs or collars. 

The crepe sets can be cleaned with gasoline, which is quite fortunate since white crepe is rather expensive. The organdy, on the other hand, can be bought in very lovely quantities from seventy-five cents to a dollar a yard. 

It is generally about two yards wide, so in spite of the fact that organdy collars and cuffs cannot be laundered and have to be replaced daily, it is not a very costly performance.

Among the other accessories peculiar to mourning are suede gloves, and dull kid shoes, and face veils of grenadine or net bordered with black grosgrain ribbon or crepe half an inch or an inch wide. Colored jewelry is never worn either in first, second, or half mourning.

One can wear pearls and diamonds, black enamel cuff pins, gun-metal belt buckles, etc., but no gold, silver, or colored jewels.  Black-bordered handkerchiefs are not used as much as they were formerly, and the ones that are in use have very narrow borders. 

The best form in mourning stationery calls for a narrow black border on cards and notepaper.  The very wide borders used abroad are considered rather ostentatious over here and are studiously avoided. 

Black furs—lynx, Astrakhan, etc., -- are the typical furs worn in mourning. White, brown, or gray furs should not be worn, although sable has always been accepted as the equivalent of black.  Bands on the sleeves are only worn by servants or people too poor to afford proper mourning.

The mourning worn by a mother for a grown child, or by a grown child for a parent, is practically the same as that worn by a widow, except that a toque or hat replaces the Marie Stuart bonnet, and the cuffs and the collars are not as deep as those worn by a widow.

Deep mourning is worn for six months or a year, lighter mourning for the following six months or year. For a young child, the period of grief can be shortened.

A young girl wearing mourning for a parent does not wear a crepe veil, and she may or may not wear crepe on her dresses.  She generally wears deep black for a year and lighter mourning for six months. All white, especially for young girls, is considered full mourning, though, of course, it is not as deep as black.

White cashmere, poplins, wool batistes, and albatross are used for house dresses. White serge and Cheviot, linen, India silk, cotton batiste, and organdy, in fact, any plain finished white materials constitute white Summer mourning.

No lingerie or embroidered materials are used, and the mourning character of white Winter dresses can be emphasized by white crepe—a beautiful material that lends itself admirably to trimming purposes.  Black and white is only half mourning; in fact, it is worn so much nowadays by smartly gowned women that it is hardly suggestive of grief at all.

For a brother or sister, full mourning is worn for a year, though it is not as deep as for a parent.  If mourning clothes are worn at all for a grandparent, it is worn for six months; for an aunt or uncle, three months. 

Mourning of this kind come under the head of complimentary grief and is observed punctiliously abroad. Over here it is often disregarded entirely. The degree of intimacy between the different members of a family should regulate its use.

Quite frequently, a grandparent or an aunt or uncle stands in the place of a father or mother to an orphan. In that case, the same mourning conventions should be followed for them as for a parent.

Mourning should always be dignified and inconspicuous. It symbolizes grief and respect for the dead. Showy gowns fantastically cut and trimmed that attract attention and comment, are in extremely poor taste.

Mourning means a withdrawal from society, and no formal entertaining or visiting is done throughout its duration. Visits of condolence are received, and after six months, one can go to concerts or even to the theater.

A great many people do not go to the theater while they are mourning, but if one is inclined to be morbid, it is far wiser to seek some diversion that will change one’s thoughts for a little while at least. 

Flowers and letters of sympathy should be acknowledged as soon as possible, although considerable latitude is allowed in the matters, as illness and prostration are apt to follow in the wake of sorrow.

I have been asked so many questions in regard to the use of crepe and the choice of materials for the yoke and chemisette that I would like to say a word concerning them before leaving the question of mourning.

The most common use of crepe is in bands or circular flounces on the bottom of skirts. The new crepes are very light and supple, so even a knee-deep frill means no discomfort. The present-day crepes, many of them, are waterproof and wear much better than those of a generation ago.

Of course, they have to be kept well brushed, for they collect the dust terribly.  In fact, any black material has to be given more care and attention that colored fabrics or it will turn gray and shabby.

Crepe can be used in bands and berthas on waists or as yokes and chemisettes. It can be used as collar facings on coats and coat dresses, as piping or bands at the top of plaited flounces. It can be used as the underskirt under a tunic or as trimming on the tunic.

Girdles and over-sleeves are made of it and, of course, one depends on it for the minor things—buttons, roseous, etc. If one does not care to use crepe on a coat collar, the proper materials are lusterless silks, -- peau de soie, ottoman, bengaline, or faille.

Yokes and semitransparent chemisettes are used nowadays in the deepest mourning. They are made of crepe, chiffon cloth, tucked chiffon, or silk net. They are always black, of course, and lace is never used for them.

Separate blouses can be made of peau de soie, crepe de Chine, or chiffon. For everyday wear, tucked waists of black challis worn with serge skirts and white collars and duffs are very nice looking and practical. They are very satisfactory.

I have said nothing about mourning for children, as there is a strong feeling against it in this country. A girl of twelve or fourteen can wear black for a parent or brother or sister, but it is not obligatory, even at that age.

With men, too, mourning is never emphasized as it is with women. A man wears a thick band on a derby, straw, or high hat for a year after he becomes a widower. He does not go into society for six months or a year, and he generally will wear black for a year.

For a parent or child, he also wears the thick band on his hat. So many American men do not wear mourning at all that there can hardly be said to be any general custom in regard to it.

Chalmers, Eleanor, “The Conventions of Mourning,” in The Delineator, New York: The Butterick Publishing Company, Vol. LXXV, No. 3, March 1910, p. 243-244.

Note: We have edited this text to correct grammatical errors and improve word choice to clarify the article for today’s readers. Changes made are typically minor, and we often left passive text “as is.” Those who need to quote the article directly should verify any changes by reviewing the original material.

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