Beginning in the 1870s, a penitential garb was adopted by some fashionable ladies:
Exclusive New York modistes are already displaying some very ecclesiastical looking toilets, designed for special wear during the Lenten season. Evening Star [Washington DC] 9 February 1889: p. 10
The fashion seems to have arisen out of mourning garb and costumes were designed and sold by mourning retailers like Jay’s:
BLACK LENTEN COSTUMES, at Two Guineas each. Messrs. JAY, having had numerous applications from their patronesses for some kind of black dress suitable to the season of Lent, have produced special LENTEN COSTUMES, which, with a sufficient quantity for a bodice unmade, they are selling at £2 2s. each, and which have already obtained the most extensive approval. Jay’s. The Times [London] 13 March 1876: p. 18
There were always critics of modish fashions for widows and of the adoption of those fashions by those not in mourning:
The most successful of the season’s belles in society are widows scarcely out of their weeds. Mourning costumes were never more carefully or coquettishly made. They are not so simple, generally, as a strict regard for propriety might dictate… Widows’ caps have become the jauntiest imaginable, if desired, and in short, mourning is no longer necessarily very somber. To show how much in favor black has grown, it is only necessary to tell that
Will be quite commonly worn this year. They are already being made, and those who don them intend to stick to the quasi-mourning during the whole forty days preceding Easter. This Lenten dress will be black alpaca, serge or cashmere, and cut close in the throat, around which will be a clerical linen collar in black or white linen. The make-up of the garment will be severely simple. A missal, bound in black and edged with silver, will be suspended by a silver chain from a black belt, fastened with a plain, square silver clasp. The bonnet of black will be of the close-sided or white muslin, simply trimmed, will be worn around the neck blow the collar, fastened down with a silver pin representing a Lenten lily; and for the six weeks the hair will be uncrimped, unwaved, unbanged, parted in the middle and laid back behind the ears. In acute cases the underclothes and nightclothes will be embroidered in black, and the stockings will be on the inky hue. Thus attired a good many women might take a further step into religious somberness by getting into a nunnery , and nobody would say them nay, for they will be unfit for the gaze of man. On the other hand, such attire will be rather becoming to rosy and youthful women, and may lead to that other religious rite called marriage. Upward rollings of the eyes and mild pensiveness of countenances will go along with these modifications of sackcloth and ashes. I don’t say that the girls who do these things are humbugs. I will go no further than to express the opinion that not one in ten knows the real meaning of Lent, or would go around the corner to find out…. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 12 February 1882: p. 9
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Many are the fashion notations, satirical observations, jokes, and sarcastic imprecations muttered under the breath about the Merry Widow. Mrs Daffodil has previously noted anecdotes about the wearing of mourning merely because it was so becoming, so it is no great surprise to find this fashionable austerity adopted as a faux-religious observance during the season of Lent when so many social amusements were forbidden. One expects that the Easter toilettes were that much more brilliant, as a gourmand relishes his meals the more after a course of taking the waters.
THE LENTEN COSTUME What the Fashionable Woman is Coquetting With Now.
New York, Feb. 27. In this season of sackcloth and ashes when the pleasures and vanities are supposed to be laid aside for more sober diversions, woman, seeing that her hands are tied regarding the elegant and showy wardrobe of the ball-room, coquets with her Lenten costume. In this make-up she resembles more closely the fashion plate in a woman’s journal than anything else.
Apparently she regards this as a sort of penance for looking so much prettier before, and it requires so little sacrifice on her part to pose as such a doll, but more likely it is her inherent coquetry which makes her adopt this sedate costume to prove to her admirers that all is not vanity, but a very chic woman can array herself in anything and look well, knowing the great secret of suitability. The less devout, but as clever a devotee is aware that the sober tint without relief of bright color is not becoming to her and here her own judgment is exercised. St Louis [MO] Republic 1 March 1890: p. 16
The austerity of the “Lenten Costume” was good in principle, but became something of a joke.
[Joke 1] “Dolly’s wearing a new Lenten costume.”
“Why do you call it Lenten?”
“She seems to have sacrificed about half of it.” The Hutchinson [KS] News 28 March 1921: p. 3
Mrs. Tiptop: Do you know, my dear, that fashion now requires that ladies must wear Lenten costumes?
Mr. Tiptop: Lenten costumes! Are they expensive?
“I am sorry to say they are—fearfully so. It’s some new sort of cloth, but I will have to have one, dear, at once.”
“Humph! Seems to me I’ll be the one that will do the repenting.” The Topeka [KS] Daily Capital 13 May 1887: p. 7
Mrs Daffodil was amused by Lenten shopping restrictions as voiced by a “dear old churchwoman.”
“During the early days of Lent,” said a dear old churchwoman to your correspondent yesterday, “I never shop for anything but black and white goods.” Dear old precisian, she had spent the better part of the morning in deciding the merits of two pieces of silver and black brocade either of which was handsome enough to divert her thoughts from her sins during the morning lesson by the bare memory of it, but she fancied herself very virtuous indeed because she had stopped at the color line—as not a few fancy it for the good of their souls to go to Lenten service in a black gown; and a silver mounted prayer book, swung by silver chains, is simply a patent of humility. Cincinnati [OH] Daily Gazette 12 March 1881: p. 10
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 about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.