Tunbridge Wells Museum & Art Gallery - Edwardian Mourning Dress

Object in Focus: Edwardian Mourning DressFront of Edwardian Mourning Dress

This Edwardian mourning dress was chosen as an Object in Focus by work experience student Mary. Through the prolific influence of Queen Victoria and her husband, Albert, social conventions, of which many are still upheld today, were set. These standards of living and etiquette (predominantly of the upper and middle classes of society) subsequently created a basis for those in the Edwardian period.

One of the areas of social etiquette that the Queen greatly influenced was mourning. For the lavish and fashionable Victorians it was important to adhere to these social norms, and following the Queen’s example was the obvious way to do so. With the death of Prince Albert in 1861, the nation was thrown into mourning. This was led by the Queen who entered what seemed a perpetual state of grief. The country followed her example: miserable and swathed in black.

The Victorian era had fashioned elaborate mourning rituals and though these did continue into the Edwardian period, they became less opulent, and were even more muted by 1918, after so many died in the World War.  The customs followed depended greatly on gender, age, and the degree of the relationship. The featured dress would have followed the mourning customs for women at the time and is likely to have been worn in a later stage of grieving.

Women’s mourning customs were far stricter than men’s, as women showed the social face of the household and were generally viewed as the weaker sex. There were various stages of mourning to comply with, the longest being for a widow (around two years), then for parent/child and so on. Though the time periods for wearing black and seclusion from society varied – depending on which magazine you took your advice from – the basic principles were the same with three generally accepted stages of mourning: full mourning, secondary mourning, and half mourning.

Back of Edwardian Mourning Dress A material that featured hugely in mourning garments was crape. During the height of lavish mourning conventions in the Victorian era, crape was used for most of the garments, providing a booming industry for the material in England. However this dress does not seem to have any crape material on it. There are two potential reasons for this: the dress was made in the Edwardian period when crape was used significantly less often, and/or the dress was worn in a later stage of mourning when the amount of crape on a garment was reduced.

Instead, much of the dress is made from cotton twill (twill is a type of weaving pattern characterised by parallel and diagonal ribs). The white fill-in provides a contrast to the black of the rest of the dress. This shows the dress to have been from a period of half mourning when the woman would have started to add subtle colours such as white, grey, purple or mauve to her wardrobe, showing a gradual transition out of mourning.

An additional detail on the dress is the reticule attached to the waistband. A reticule is a type of small handbag, typically with a drawstring and an embroidered decorative pattern. When reticules first appeared in the 1790s, they were made of netting and often carried over the arm on a chain or cord. However this reticule matches the heavy cotton twill of the bodice and skirt and is attached to the waistband.

Mary says: I decided to research and write about this Edwardian mourning dress from the collection as I hadn’t really known about the conventions involving mourning before. The emotions surrounding death make it a delicate topic, however. Unlike now, the Victorians and Edwardians followed strict rules set by society to elaborately express their grieving. This fascinated me as the idea of mourning has changed so much, making what the Victorians set as standard seem completely alien to today’s more liberal world.