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Dress And Customs Appropriate To Mourning

IT seems a strange thing that we, who profess and call ourselves Christians, should yet think it right to assume the trappings of the deepest woe and gloom upon the death of a near and dear friend. According to our belief the loved one has gone to a happier world, free from all pain and care. Why, then, should we surround ourselves with the tokens of a woe that is in some sort a rebellion against the decrees of Divine Providence? Many people, reasoning -thus, feel that it is not right to put on any outward show of mourning, and it must be confessed that their argument is a logical one. Others, again, object to wearing weeds because the custom is such an expensive one, and because poor people feel that they must comply with it, or seem wanting in respect for the dead; whereas if the rich did not set them the example, the poor would not feel obliged to follow it.

On the other hand, there are many reasons to be urged in favor of allowing people to assume a mourning dress where they wish to do so. The voice of society is not cruel enough in these days to dictate a universal law on the subject, though it may once have done so; nor does it hold up to scorn and obloquy those who from conscientious motives refuse to comply with its mandates. A mourning dress is a great protection against thoughtless and painful inquiries. It shows at once to all friends and acquaintances that the wearer has recently lost some near and dear friend, and warns them not to jar upon a sad mood with a merry one, nor to ask careless questions. Some people are so deficient in tact that they will ask a person in deep black for whom she is wearing mourning, but fortunately such people are not very common.

In the first prostration of a heavy sorrow it is a comfort to many persons to have something that is purely mechanical with which to fill up the time and to distract the mind, even if only in a very small measure, from the crushing grief which threatens to overwhelm it. Thus the necessary arrangements for mourning, etc., are really a painful blessing, though one does not always know that they are so at the time.

One of the most poignant regrets, secondary only to the sense of the loss itself, is caused by the feeling that the dead must, in the nature of things, soon be forgotten, and their names as well as their places be lost from among the living. Hence those who are in deep sorrow cling beyond all things to the memory of their dead, and to whatever tends to keep it alive. They feel, too, that garments of mourning are a fit outward sign of a true inward sorrow, and that in wearing them the last token of respect and affection is paid to the dead. Many of us have seen people who did not believe in the custom of wearing mourning, who thought it an empty show and formality, and yet when their own time of real trouble came, were very glad to seek its protection.

Mourning is not now usually worn for so great a length of time as formerly; and although some people — at least some women — are very censorious and exacting on the subject, society in general allows more liberty of choice than it once did both in regard to wearing mourning at all, and to the length of time for wearing it. In New England, public sentiment has never required so much outward show in this and other matters as is found in the Middle States. Philadelphia, again, has the reputation of being more ceremonious than New York. But the old-fashioned and extreme tyranny of mourning, which forbade women to appear in the street unless they were covered by a suffocating and unhealthy crape veil, and which declared that windows giving on the street must be darkened for so many weeks or months after a death in the house, — all this has passed or is passing rapidly away.

Physicians have objected so much to the injurious habit of covering the face with crape, that veils of this material are now used much less than formerly, and are seldom worn over the face, except at a funeral, or in the first few days of bereavement. They are replaced by chiffon, silk grenadine or nun's veiling, fabrics at once prettier, softer and cheaper than crape. Silk or net trimmed with crape is also used. In addition to the long veil thrown back over the hat or bonnet, a short face veil of tulle or net, edged with crape or black ribbon, is often worn.

The length of time for wearing mourning varies greatly according to individual taste and feeling in this country, with a tendency, however, to shorter rather than longer periods, save with ultra-conservative people.

We are still inclined to be shocked at the brevity of French mourning; but it must be remembered that the longer people wear black, the harder it is for them to leave it off, so that in some cases daughters who have lost a parent can hardly persuade them-selves to put on colors again after four or even five years. This is morbid and all wrong; it comes from a confusion of ideas, and a misinterpretation of the meaning of mourning. By resuming our ordinary garments we do not signify that our sorrow has become no sorrow, but rather that it has assumed a different phase, and has ceased to be the prominent, nay, the all-absorbing feature in our lives that it was at first.

According to French etiquette a widow wears mourning for her husband during one year and six weeks. This period is subdivided into three shorter ones; namely, six months of deep mourning, six months of ordinary, and six weeks of half mourning. For a father, mother, or wife the French 'wear mourning for six months, divided into three of deep and three of half mourning; for a sister or brother two months, of which one is deep mourning; for a grandparent, two and a half months of slight mourning; for an aunt or uncle, three weeks of ordinary mourning; and for a cousin, two weeks.

Deep mourning consists of plain lustreless woollen stuffs and crape. Modern custom also sanctions the use of lustreless silks and crêpe de chine. The stuffs should be of handsome material and fine texture where the means of the wearer will allow, but should always be made up in a simple and unostentatious manner, and not overloaded with crape. Not only is the custom of wearing a great quantity of crape going out of vogue, but it is also a very objection-able fashion, because real sorrow should never be made to appear like a sort of dress-parade. Dull jet beads are worn in mourning, but a profusion of them is not appropriate to its earlier stages.

It should be said that the severe plainness formerly characteristic of mourning dress, has been somewhat modified in recent years, especially in the later stages of mourning. Jet is not. considered allowable save in slight mourning, in this country, although it is in England; neither is lace used. In half-mourning, black and white as well as gray are now worn, also violet and lilac Complimentary mourning is black silk without crape.

It is difficult to lay down exact rules, — where custom varies as it does in this country, — and the best that can be done is to approximate ordinary usage as nearly as may be in regard to the length of time during which mourning is worn in various cases. Widows usually wear deep mourning for two or more years, and many elderly women retain it for life. The conventional costume consists of a crape bon-net with a widow's cap, i. e. a white ruching around the face, a long veil of crape or other material, a gown and outer garment of lustreless woollen stuff made with great simplicity. It may or may not be trimmed with crape. White collars and cuffs of organdie or other transparent material, relieve the severity of this costume. After a year, the veil is shortened or a lighter one is used, and the mourning may be lightened. Thus dull silk may take the place of woollen materials. Some authorities say that silk should not be worn during the first two years of widowhood. It is in questionable taste for a young and pretty widow to wear her mourning after she has become reconciled to the death of her first husband and is quite willing to marry a second. A widow still wearing her weeds, and at the same time carrying on an animated flirtation with some new admirer, is a sight to make the gods weep. We do not wish that women should commit suttee in any form; but to angle for a second husband with the weeds worn for the first, because they are becoming, is a thing that should be forbidden by law. Where a widow is leaving off her mourning, of course the case is quite different, because she has then already begun to signify her intention of wearing black no more. If a widow happens to become en-gaged to be married while still in mourning, many people think she should not discard her black dress until her marriage; where a suitable length of time has elapsed, however, after the death of the first husband, it would seem more appropriate for her to leave off her mourning gradually.

For parents, mourning is usually worn during two years, and made lighter in the second year. Some people, however, continue to wear deep mourning, crape veil and all, for two years. For brothers and sisters, the usual period was formerly two years, but one is now considered sufficient. For uncles, aunts, or grandparents, three to six months of ordinary, not deep mourning are usually thought sufficient, unless where the tie has been an unusually near and dear one. Indeed, many people do not put on mourning at all, save for very near relatives. The custom of wearing deep black for a long period of time as a compliment to one's husband's relations is certainly a very objectionable one. It seems to take all the real meaning from mourning, and to make it a mere form and show. For in the very nature of things one cannot love another person's kindred like one's own.

Parents often wear mourning for grown-up sons or daughters during two years. For children, most people do not wear crape; not because the grief is not of the deepest, but because very stiff formal mourning seems utterly unfitted to express the tender though poignant grief caused by the loss from this world of a child's pure innocent spirit. In the same way mourning for young children is not usually worn during more than a year; this, in spite of the fact that the loss of a child often causes sorrow more enduring than any other. The idea of respect for the dead enters more or less into all our theories of mourning, and this respect seems specially due to older people.

When one is in deep mourning, one does not go into society, nor does one pay formal visits. Neither does one go to the theatre, or other public place of amusement, unless it be to a concert, until at least six months have elapsed after the death of a near relative. After three months it is considered allowable to attend concerts. Some people now shorten this period of strict seclusion. It must always be remembered that to many persons this isolation continued for months or years, this deprivation of all save the most limited society, and of every sort of relaxation or amusement that could take their minds from the one preoccupying thought, is not only very depressing but extremely injurious. We are not all alike, and to some minds it is fatal to be allowed to prey entirely upon them-selves. Hence, while people in deep mourning should certainly avoid gay society, they ought not to be looked at askance, if, after a decent period of time, they find it to be for their comfort and happiness to see their friends occasionally or even to attend opera or theatre matinées in a quiet way. The strictest and most formal mourning is not always the most sincere. In the charming story of " Edelweiss," the author describes a son, who, crushed with grief for the loss of his mother, finds his only consolation in resuming work at his trade as soon as the funeral is over; the neighbors are of course deeply scandalized at his proceedings, as they listen to the tap, tap of his shoemaker's hammer.

Older people should not expect younger ones to remain in strict seclusion so long a time as they themselves do; the grief of youth is often very intense, but it does not usually last so long as that of persons of mature years. Moreover, it is a cruel thing to shroud the natural gayety and bright spirits of the young in long-continued mourning and depression. Hence, a young girl should not wear a crape veil, and if she puts on mourning, it should not be for any great length of time.

Some men put on complete suits of black, with weeds on their hats, and black gloves, on the loss of any near relation. Most men, however, confine their mourning to crape on the hat or sleeve, except at the funeral, when they wear black suits and black gloves. Custom varies on this point in different cities. In New York, it is much more common to see gentlemen dressed in mourning than it is in Boston. Men are not expected to seclude themselves from society for so long a period as women, though every one is shocked to see a man appear in the gay world soon after the death of a near relative. A widower often wears black for two years; it is perhaps needless to state that many men cease to be widowers long before that period is over. The feeling of society, however, is in favor of a man's remaining faithful to the memory of his wife for two years; longer than that no one expects him to wait before consoling himself. A widow, however, is never quite forgiven by the world at large if she marries again, — this difference in our judgments of the conduct of the two sexes shows plainly a survival of savage ideas in the midst of our boasted civilization.

Some formal people dress children in mourning after the loss of a near relative; but to most of us it seems positively wrong to depress the spirits of a little one by such solemn garb. Childhood comes but once. God endowed children with a bright and happy spirit; they cannot understand the meaning of death and sorrow, why need we try to teach it to them? The compromise of dressing children in, white is a rather unpractical and expensive one.

The custom of putting coachmen and footmen into mourning livery seems, a very empty and formal one; nevertheless, among rich people in New York and else-where, it is quite customary to do so. It is usual to wear black or quiet colors when attending a funeral.

When there has been a death in a family, it is customary for friends and acquaintances to call within a month, not with the expectation that they will be received, but merely to show their sympathy. Intimate friends call much sooner, — before the funeral, if their intimacy warrants it, or shortly after. They of course ask to see the family; but no one should feel hurt if mourners, in the first prostration of grief, refuse to see anybody.'

When people in mourning feel ready once more to go into society, they announce the fact by sending out cards enclosed in envelopes to those who have called upon them. Or if they prefer, they may leave their cards.

According to an old superstition, it is unlucky for any one to appear at a wedding dressed in black. It is usual, therefore, even for those in deep mourning, to lay it aside for that one occasion, and to appear in white, gray, or purple, or in other and brighter colors. Of course people who are in deep mourning attend only the weddings of relatives or intimate friends, and would not in any case be present at large or gay wed-ding receptions. In England, deep red would be worn at a wedding, as the alternative for mourning, — an idea perhaps derived from the Chinese, whose mourning color is red and not black. Indeed, an Englishwoman wearing crape will sometimes appear with an artificial red rose stuck in her bonnet. In this country, no one would think of wearing colored artificial flowers, and many people object even to natural flowers of bright colors, when worn with mourning. In second mourning, however, it seems quite proper for a lady to wear natural flowers of any color that she pleases, — not, of course, in profusion.

Mourning dress should be left off gradually. It is startling to see a person one day in crapes and the next in bright colors.

Long and formal letters of condolence have now gone out of fashion; even intimate friends confine them-selves to writing short notes, in which they strive to ex-press their real sympathy, or to give utterance to some comforting thought, rather than to preach, or inculcate a lesson of resignation. in the old-fashioned cruel manner. Sympathy is grateful to almost every one, and we are all glad to hear words of hope and cheer from those who have a true and living faith in things immortal and invisible. Expressions of affection and esteem for the friend whose loss we mourn, afford a certain sad comfort to us. But sorrow brings its own lesson, and seldom do we need additional ones from self-constituted mortal teachers, when we are already learning from a Higher Source. It must be added that to many people letters of condolence are only distressing, and serve merely to keep the wound open. If these letters are sent at all, it should be promptly, if possible within a week or two after a death. In that early time of grief, the mourners' hearts are so filled to overflowing that they cannot do anything but think and speak of their sorrow. Later on, after they have begun to take up again the business of life, while they may grieve as deeply as ever, a certain reserve comes over their feelings, which makes it very painful to many people either to read letters of condolence or to talk about those they have lost. Unless a strong feeling urges them to do so, persons who are not intimate friends should not write these letters; of course there are exceptions to this rule, notably in the case of public or other well-known characters, where their relatives feel that tributes to their worth and eminence are only right and proper, and to be expected. In the case of a sudden death, or of one under very distressing circumstances, people endeavor to show their sympathy by brief letters of condolence. A sound human instinct bids us do what we can, to comfort those in deep sorrow. Cards of condolence, containing a brief message, such as " With deepest sympathy " are now sent by many persons who would hesitate to write a letter.

Visits of condolence require much tact on the part of those who pay them, especially where they are made some time after a death has taken place. Unless the visitor is a very intimate friend, it is generally better not to intrude upon the other's sorrow by talking freely on the subject. Rather should one lead the conversation that way, and give the mourner an opportunity — if she wishes - to speak of her grief and its cause. People differ much in this respect; to some it is a relief to pour forth their sorrow, and to others it is so painful to do so, that friends must steer a middle course between seeming indifferent and appearing intrusive. Tact, sympathy and knowledge of a friend's character must dictate what one shall do or say.

Some well-meaning but thoughtless people will meet an acquaintance who is in deep affliction, in the street, or in a railroad station, and will perhaps say, " I am so sorry to have heard of your trouble! " Anxious to express their sympathy, they forget how torturing it may be to the other person to have her wound so suddenly probed, and in such a public place, where it would be most unfitting' to give way to grief. It is quite possible by look, tone, and manner to indicate the sympathy which time and place forbid one to express.

Where those who are in affliction have a large circle of relatives and friends, the latter should remember that it may be extremely painful for the mourners to be obliged to recount the circumstances of their loss, and give a detailed account of the last illness and death, over and over again.

( Originally Published 1911 )

Social Customs:
Conversation In Society

On Voice, Language And Accent

Gestures And Carriage


Letters Of Introduction

On Dress

Dress And Customs Appropriate To Mourning

Host And Guest

Country Manners And Hospitality

In The Street And In Public Places

Read More Articles About: Social Customs

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