Women suffer things that men never have to. Fashionable femininity endures miseries in ways that its poorer sisters don’t have to. Wealth itself brings certain sorrows to the women who possess it. I met a widow just out of mourning garb and arrayed in gay colors. I hadn’t seen her since her bereavement. She had regained her old-time buoyancy and was having a good time at a dinner dance. Yet I observed gray hair in her coiffure that had not been there before and fancied that her voice had a note of grief.
“The loss of your husband has been a sad blow to you, my dear,” I said to be polite, although I knew well enough that he had been utterly uncongenial.
“I don’t feel that way about it,” she frankly replied; “he didn’t care for me, nor I for him. After using $20,000 out of his $250,000 for his mausoleum I felt free of further obligation and set out to have a good time with his fortune.” I was puzzled by the gray hair that had come on her head so quickly and asked her to explain it.
“It is the result of a shock,” she said. “You have read of persons whose hair, under intense terror or acute grief, turned all white in a single night? Well, only about one of my hairs in a thousand whitened, and it took a month for me to get as slightly gray as you see me, yet the bleaching was done by a mental shock. When the time approached for me to shuck the blacks in gowns and the blues in demeanor I planned a special toilet for the April Horse Show at Atlantic City. I sent to a famous Paris designer for drawings in water colors and samples of fabrics and adjuncts. I wanted to distinguish my ‘coming out’ as a widow with just the richest not only, but the best fitting and most becoming gown at the fair. The artist had my photograph, too, with all the particulars of complexion, hair and form from which to ‘create’ a triumphant toilet. The cost didn’t matter. It was enormous though, and included a whopping bill for cablegrams to close up the negotiations. One of my special stipulations was that the design should not only be original, but kept absolutely exclusive to me. The artist was bound to never duplicate or even imitate it.
“Well, my dear Clara Belle, the gown came all right. It was a dream of beauty—just odd enough to be unusual yet not gaudy; and after the final adjustments had been made by a skilled fitter here I was proud of myself as I looked into a mirror. I took it to Atlantic City in my motor car, instead of sending it by express with the rest of my wardrobe, so that it couldn’t go astray or get delayed. The opening day arrived warm and fair. The display of toilets in the boxes was fine for a lot of dressy women had come from New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore; and there was a big crowd of ordinary spectators, for an excursion train from the Quaker City had brought 1,000 sightseers.
“I posed a while at the front of my box and rivaled the horse exhibits as an object of interest. I mentally pinned a first prize ribbon on my breast and was exceedingly proud. Here and there among the swell Philadelphia women, whoever, I thought that I detected scrutiny that looked critical and sometimes two would whisper about me. What did it mean? After several competitions in the ring were over I went with my escort for a promenade on the lawn among the commoner folks—from the well-to-do to the barely-get there.
“Suddenly I got an awful shock. Along came a woman in a gown that, in everything except quality of material, was a counterpart of mine. The whole design was identical. I tottered and would have fallen if my companion hadn’t caught me. When the daze passed the woman was gone. Hadn’t she been a hallucination? I had begun to think so when another gown like mine came into view. The colors in this one were different, but it repeated the original otherwise. Within an hour I saw no less than five copies, and one in quite cheap stuff was worn by a girl as common as the goods.
“That fiend of a Parisian ‘artist’ had foisted on me as an ‘original and exclusive creation’ a design that he—or some one else—had made for an American manufacturer of gowns to be put on the market ready-made, and some big department store in Philadelphia had got a run on them. I went to my hotel in a state of nervous prostration, was no more than half conscious on my auto trip home and within a week these silver threads were among the gold of my hair.”
The Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 15 May 1910: p. C8
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The occasion of a widow coming “out of mourning” was treated as tantamount to a debut by some widows, such as this lady. Like the debutante ritual, it showed that they were “back on the market,” to use an indelicate phrase. As an aside, 1910 was the year of “Black Ascot,” although this lady, being an American, would not have gone into mourning for the King.
Etiquette demanded that widows wear black–dull and crape-trimmed for the first year; shinier fabrics, white trim, jet jewellery, and a shorter veil for the second. After the two years, half-mourning: white, gray, heliotrope, and mauve could be worn as the widow emerged from her cocoon of black crape. These rules were not invariably followed to the letter, but the newspapers reported on the mourning fashions of prominent women and were often scathing in their criticisms. For example:
A rather remarkable case is that of the recently bereaved Mrs. Marshal Field, of Chicago, who undertook to serve two masters by having her mourning gown cut décolleté. To the lay mind unacquainted with the awesome rites of fashion, the custom of rushing to the modiste when death is in the house smacks somewhat of flummery and frivolity. At the high tide of sorrow, the very crux of despair, gores, ruffles and tucks, sleeves and collars, would seem matters quite irrelevant; but this custom obtains in society and must be respected unless one is an out-and-out iconoclast and reckless heretic. The various stages of grief are furthermore shown to the world by a judicious handling of whites and grays, but it has been ordained always to be high-necked and long-sleeved grief.
Now, for any individual to change this order is a matter of fearful import; and the spectacle of Mrs. Marshall Field, at the end of a scant three weeks, breaking out all at once into bare neck and arms is a thing at once scandalous and deplorable. This still blooming widow, perhaps set upon her sorrowful and afflicted head a dull jet tiara; furthermore, perhaps about her drooping neck, sported some black pearls, which are de riguer, if you are fortunate enough to own them, at certain stages of melancholy. So perhaps she also wore black glace kids instead of dull suede. From such a spectacle one avert the eye; before such ill-considered vanity decorum goes into convulsions. That concrete grief should so far forget itself as to appear in a décolleté gown, albeit a very black gown, is a thing which makes the whole world stand aghast.
We live in parlous times, that is true, but never before has this been more openly shown than in this sad case of tearful innovation.
Tucson [AZ] Daily Citizen 16 February 1906: p. 2
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,”where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes. You may read more about Victorian practices in The Victorian Book of the Dead by Chris Woodyard, which will be published in September of this year.