The tradition of mourning: culture, clothes and jewelry


Mourning brooche from the fifties (synthetic)
Mourning buttons of jet 1870 – 1940

Mourning dress as a disguise

Traditionally, it was customary after a bereavement for the surviving next of kin to wear special clothes or to cover their faces with a veil. This wasn´t merely a sign of mourning, it was also a disguise, meant to divert the attention of the spirits from the departing soul while at the same time protecting oneself against them by taking on a similar appearance.


The colour white as protection

The original mourning colour in Europe was therefore white. Spirits or ´ghosts´ are usually believed to take the form of a white apparition. White was for a long time the colour to ward off spirits and to indicate deep mourning. The period of mourning was determined by the time believed necessary for a soul to reach the after-life. Once the soul had arrived there, there was nothing more to fear and no reason to hide any longer.


From white to black

After the death of her husband Charles VIII of France in 1498, Anne of Brittany adopted black as the colour of her mourning attire. This was soon broadly imitated. From that time on, mourning dress became subject to fashion, and large regional differences developed.


Rules of mourning

Mourning had a function in society because it met with recognition and acceptance. This was reflected above all in mourning dress, which was worn for a specified period of time, depending upon a person´s relationship to the deceased. There were clear rules for every social class, right up to the royal court. Class differences could easily be identified thanks to these rules, which were often unwritten and were handed down by word of mouth.


Queen Victoria

Mourning culture reached its peak in the second half of the 19th century, especially in urban society. By then, it included very specific rules on clothing, social contact and behaviour. Queen Victoria played an important role in this. After the death of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861, the British queen ordered her people to wear black mourning dress. This example was followed in large parts of Europe and the United States.


Jet and glass

The mourning dress of women from the upper classes was the subject of much attention. Women´s magazines, like ´Da Gracieuse´ of April 15th, 1879, presented instructions for modified forms of mourning attire, which showed that it was just as much subject to fashion as any other clothes. The buttons would be dull or shiny, depending on the phase of mourning. The most precious – and most expensive – were made of jet, a form of carbon which was made into buttons, beads and jewellery in one of the many workshops in Whitby, Great Britain.
Affordable alternatives included polished or matt black glass (´French jet´ or ´poor man´s jet´) and hardened rubber (caoutchouc), which could be moulded into various forms.


Specialist retailers

All kinds of accessories, from laundry marks and needles to handkerchiefs and watch chains, were attuned to black. As the etiquette manuals of the time stated: “Beware, as far as mourning is concerned, the world judges harshly! Arbitrary restraint raises eyebrows.”

With the emergence of large department stores, some specialized in mourning dress and accessories. Few people in the Netherlands had their own mourning clothes. They hired them, both for themselves and for the coffin bearers. /p>


From mourning dress to armband, to nothing

After World War I (1914-1918) the custom of mourning dress went into decline. For men in urban areas, in particular, it became difficult to dress entirely in black for more than a year, as was required by the code of conduct. Wearing black was not for instance feasible for soldiers, or for public officials. As an alternative, a black armband would be worn on the left arm during the mourning period, or a diamond-shaped piece of cloth sewn onto the left sleeve or cap. In the second half of the twentieth century, the practice of displaying mourning disappeared completely, barring a few exceptions.


21st century: need for acceptance and recognition of mourning

Once people stopped displaying the fact that they had been bereaved, society stopped paying attention to people in mourning. Recently there has been a revival of interest in rituals associated with funeral services. parlAmore visibly expresses a need for mourning to be recognized and acknowledged once more.



I would like to build up my collection; see Old mourning Buttons