A Wardrobe Peculiarly Suited to the Bereaved One’s Conditions: 1905

Casting Off the Widow’s Weeds, Henry James Richter, 1823 http://www.wikigallery.org/wiki/painting_231401/Henry-James-Richter/page-1

Mourning Gowns That Harmonize with the Bereaved One’s Complexion and Spirits

The genius of a Washington dressmaker has conceived the idea of specializing for the bereaved. “Widows’ outfits” are the objects of her particular attention, and upon them are brought to bear all her creative power.

“Widows’ outfits” does not appear upon her sign, which is merely a very high sounding name on a small and thoroughly correct name plate that has adorned her front door for a generation past. It is only to the initiated of a very select clientele that she has imparted the information that wardrobe peculiarly suited to the bereaved conditions may be obtained from madam for a consideration.

According to her theory, not only must a widow’s weeds be an expression of her grief, but they must convey in them the depth of it as well as the previous state of happiness or the reverse. For elderly widows who have jogged happily through forty or fifty years of conjugal congeniality she advises lightweight drap d’ ete with heavy crape bands and folds, lightening into black crepe de Chine as time goes by.

In the case of a young woman sincerely mourning a much loved husband, one to whom she was wedded in every sense of the word, there is the “creped becomingness” of the softer fabrics such as chiffon cloth, &c., and her costume generally looks as if she had been dipped to her ears in the blackest ink obtainable. For grief that is genuine and inconsolable madam advises only the softest, sheerest fabrics, as customers are apt to be unmindful of their appearance, and careless of their attire, and the softer the material the better it will stand hard usage. For mourning meant to be worn all day without change for the evening, the clinging stuffs make the best gowns.

In all cases madam thinks it is impossible to have the collar too high, and sometimes, if madam sees fit and they are becoming, two little points, to go up under the ears, are added to the already chokingly high neckband. These are most frequently an adjunct to the collar when there is a tendency toward extreme thinness, as it not only hides the lines in the neck, but adds a something to the face that heightens the woefulness of the moral atmosphere.

For a young and beautiful widow of an old man, “well, youth is youth, and black is a trying thing at best—trying alike to complexion and spirits, and it would be far better if madam’s customer would leave the matter to her judgment, for you know madam has been long in the business, and well, you know white crepe is just as much mourning as the most unrelieved black, when it comes to that, and besides, the French always give a suggestion of it to their deepest mourning.”

For this gown madam makes a tentative suggestion as to the advisability of a lightening effect produced by a tiny vest of white crape, “which will relieve the severity of the dead black, which is apt to make even the fairest look a wee bit sallow.”

As soon as the bereaved one begins to make a more active interest in her fellow man and commences to realize that “grief is a selfish thing, and that every one owes it to society to take up one’s duties in it again,” madam sets her uncommon wits to work and provides her with gowns that, as an indication of her mental state, are quite as adequate as a sworn statement.

There are street clothes that express to a thought the degree of mourning, walking gowns of varying depths of woe, afternoon toilets of chiffon cloth, crepe de chine, and dull taffetas, each displaying in its cut and trimming a pleasing melancholy, while into matinees is allowed to creep a suspicion, and that the barest, of frivolity, in the shape of ruffles of mousseline plisse.

A dinner gown is, of course, included among these. It is but slightly décolleté, just sufficiently so to give the necessary air of smartness to the gown to make it suitable for the occasion, and “prevent one from being so gloomy looking as to affect the enjoyment of the assemblage.”

“The sleeves? Well that is entirely a question of—are madam’s arms plump? No? Then perhaps it would be better that the sleeves be to the elbow that is always—Oh, madam’s wrists are large? Well, as madam was saying short sleeves are a little uncomfortable at a dinner, and elbow sleeves are sometimes trying even to the prettiest arms, so possibly it would be wisest to make one of those half-concealing, half-revealing sleeves that madam thought so charming on that gown she saw yesterday.”

“Then the skirt! Could anything be straighter than its lines? Not unless carved from ebony, and then only in reality, not in effect. Severe simplicity in its most exaggerated form is the keynote of this frock that breaks the ice after the period of seclusion from the world and its frivolities, and then comes the next step in what madam considers the right direction. This is signaled by a gown all white, like a debutante’s, but what a difference! This gown is equally suitable for dinner or dance.

Does madam trim black gowns with violet, and violet gowns with black? Does she make a dark gray silk for church and a light gray for parties? Heaven forbid! Madam is an artiste. The second mourning of her clients is composed of dark violet, untrimmed; light violet, also untrimmed; soft grays without a touch of either black or white, and creamy white gowns galore. With each gown for the street madam insists that a hat of exactly the same color be worn, with absolutely no hint of contrast. When the time comes for the final doffing of all that pertains to woe in the shape of clothes, madam strongly advises that one take the plunge boldly and at once, making the change as decided as is possible.

The Washington [DC] Post 29 October 1905: p. 7

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: Mrs Daffodil is somewhat appalled at the suggestion that a widow coming out of mourning is like a “debutante.” Still, there are reports of ladies who took the piquant idea to heart.  Here is an excerpt from The Victorian Book of the Dead to illustrate the concept:

Some widows made their coming out of mourning tantamount to a debut, complete with a new wardrobe.

AN AMERICAN’S FAD

A Fanciful Widow Who Celebrated Her Abandonment of Mourning

English newspapers and magazine paragraphers who delight to select and repeat for their innocent auditors all the curious fads and caprices of fashionable American women will doubtless remark with grave wonder on one of the last and most absurd arrangements in dinners lately given by a New York woman who is a lover of harmonies. Two years ago she suffered the loss of her husband.

After many months of travel abroad she returned home this autumn with boxes of exquisite creations of silver grays, violet, lavender and heliotrope, fresh from the hands of French modistes. After receiving many attentions from home friends, she decided to give what she chose to call “a going out of mourning dinner.” Her idea was carried out to the last detail, and the whole filled her guests with amusement and surprise. Her gown was a superb combination of silk, velvet and chiffon, running through every tint of violet, lavender and heliotrope, and lavishly ornamented with jet and black lace. Her ornaments were black pearls and enamelled violets.

The dining table was laid with a white cloth overspread with a scarf and central square of white silk, and lines embroidered heavily in the delicate gray stems and lavender flowers of wisteria. Violets, heliotrope, and lilies-of-the-valley were the flowers used in decorating the table and for the men’s boutonnieres. The candles, in silver candelabra, were of violet-tinted wax, with violet silk shades. The opalescent glass glowed with tints of violet and lavender, sugared violets were the only bonbons on the table, and great bunches of violets tied with violet satin streamers were attached to the right-hand side of the back of every woman’s chair.

Wheeling [WV] Register 25 December 1891: p. 4

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.

 

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