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Mourning colour: from white to black

anne-de-bretagne-in black-mourning

Anne is a trendsetter in black mourning

When the mourning Queen Anne de Bretagne of France dressed in sombre black in 1498, she caused a stir.

Queens in France traditionally mourned in ‘pure’ white. But the 22-year-old Anne’s grief over the death of her husband Charles VIII, while she had also lost her youngest child not long before, was so great that in her eyes only black was suitable as a colour of mourning.

When black is too expensive

In the Middle Ages, black and white were considered suitable shades for mourning clothes because of their neutral character, the absence of colour. Although black was traditionally the dominant mourning colour in the Christian world, dyeing clothes black was a costly affair. For this reason, the mourners also often wore undyed white clothing, which looked dull grey rather than really white.

Invisible to the ghosts

There was also something to be said for both ‘colours’ in another respect. In the early Middle Ages, when belief in supernatural powers was still widespread, death did not only cause grief. The next of kin were also afraid that the spirit of the deceased would do something to them. So they had to make sure they were unrecognisable. In black, they were invisible at night and thus safe from the spirits dressed in white, but with white mourning clothes they looked so much like the spirits that the latter would overlook them.

Not for everyone

At the end of the Middle Ages, black increasingly became the dominant mourning colour. This development was strongly stimulated by the church, which regarded the wearing of black mourning clothes as a sign of good Christianity. Nevertheless, white did not completely disappear from the picture as a mourning colour. Especially in higher circles, white mourning clothes for women remained common for a long time. Even in 1934, the Dutch queen, Queen Wilhelmina, wore white to the funeral of her husband, Prince Hendrik.