As we looked at the full mourning gown in the Museum of the Confederacy’s collection with all its accessories we speculated that the lady who owned this outfit was probably younger in age and decently well off. Parasol, hat, veil, accompanying jewelry, and the heaviness of the material make one believe that this was probably an expensive ensemble for the time frame of the civil war era. What did other mourning attire look like was there a vast difference between the dark solemn gowns of the rich and of the poor?
I decided to search through images and found the majority to be almost identical to if not comparable to the one we saw on display. I realized this probably has more to do with the fact that pieces of higher quality last longer and those worn by higher society would probably sustain less wear and tear then the garments of the working class. I also noted that a hat had been tipped to mourning wear as a primary advancer in the popularity and rise of ready made clothing in the article A Lively Look at the History of Death, especially that of the full mourning attire. Which made sense to me as death usually comes on its own accord and rarely gives the survivors a lot of time to order fabric and sew or have a seamstress sew a gown and at a time when the civil war had claimed so many lives most of the remaining population was wearing mourning attire. One statistic I saw showed that at one point Alabama had over 80000 widows. So full mourning attire like what we saw would be needed immediately. Ready made gowns and accessories would explain why the majority of the “high class” mourning dresses I saw resembled each other so closely. I even found flyers from different stores advertising sales in their mourning attire stock.
Not everyone could immediately afford ready made gowns and often dark dye was used to transform ones regular attire to mourning attire quickly and cheaply. A diary of one Virginia woman in 1846 recalls the whole town smelling of the dye pots, which was a very pungent smell. This was probably most often the case yet is not what is encompassed by most surviving and displayed collections that I have found.
The look of mourning attire was also largely influenced by the fashions of the times and many women looked to Queen Victoria and the British for popular styles, which may also be a reason why the dresses were so similar and not according to one’s own personal style and depth of connection to the deceased. Mourning costumes were also largely regulated and written about in many pamphlets and books in circulation at the time. How long each mourning period lasted, what garments should be worn, what fabrics were appropriate and at what point in the mourning were they worn, even which accessories one could wear publically were laid out in this culture of mourning.
The hair accessories we viewed at the museum were amongst the limited jewelry choices one could wear in public during mourning. These in their own right helped advance the profession of skilled artesian as the demand for mourning jewelry in this time period was great. Articles in periodicals of the time also detailed plans of weaving different types of hair jewelry to accompany one’s mourning attire.
By starting to examine the reasons behind the similarities in trends of full mourning attire I was able to get a glimpse into the beginnings of the ready made fashion era and the direct impact death, via fashion, had on the society of the civil war time period.
Levins, Hoag. A Lively Look at the History of Death, Exploring the Architecture and Rituals of Civil War-Era Mourning. Civil War Connections. HistoricCamdenCounty.com. http://historiccamdencounty.com/ccnews43.shtml