My Cousin Made a Black Bonnet- Mourning Dress in the 19th Century

This is the world of my forgotten forebears. They were ordinary people whose lives are now beyond memory. I hope to give them a name and a context. They are my family, but I hope you’ll enjoy reading about my journeys through time to bring back their stories.

“Custom decrees, if even inclination does not prompt us, to show in some outward degree our respect for the dead by wearing the usual black.”

~Collier’s Cyclopedia 1901

Mary Ann Bradley was born in 1826 in St Luke’s Parish, Islington, London. Her father Thomas Bradley was a glass cutter. Her mother was Lucy. Mary Ann is my first cousin five times removed.

Mary Ann was a mourning milliner along with her illegitimate daughter, Mary Matilda Bradley. They made black hats. I imagine outcast Mary Ann and outcast Mary Matilda sitting in a dusty, dark London home in Brittania Row. Mother and daughter surrounded by yards of black fabric, eyes squinting to sew by the greasy, yellow light of a tallow candle. The image is a terribly sad one. Of course, maybe Mary Ann swore like a sailor and laughed from the belly up. Maybe her romance with Mary Matilda’s father was a great love story; maybe it was just a roll in the hay. (In the Victorian period straw was still used as base for a softer feather, animal hair or wool-stuffed mattress or in the case of the poor, as a mattress on its own.) Maybe she treated her daughter cruelly; or maybe they were the best of friends. I’m sure Mary Ann had a furrowed brow but really all I can say for certain is that she made black hats for weeping widows.

Death was big business in the 19th century. There was the casket, the funeral, the burial and the mourning outfits to consider. Some poorer families spent days with the bodies of their dead family members in their bedrooms while they waited to raise money for burial. In Lee Jackson’s book Daily Life in Victorian London:An Extraordinary Anthology, he quotes George Sims’ How the Poor Live, 1883. Mr Sims went to the home of an immigrant Irish family living in Spitalfields whose young son had died of scarlet fever. The family of five – mother, father,daughter about three years-old and two grandparents – had kept the boy’s dead body on their living room table uncovered for eight days. They ate, played, chatted and slept in this 14 ft² room for eight days before their son’s body was removed and buried. Writing this, I resolve not to moan about the fact that I scuffed the heel of my teal high-heels while driving, or any other of my decidedly first-world problems.

Mary Ann would likely have been given the material by a Mourning Shop to make the hats for their customers at her house. She was certainly working from home in 1861. Payment for the finished product cannot have been great. A dress-maker working in the Spitalfields sweatshops in 1889 was paid 6d for each juvenile two-piece suit she made, which translates into £1.50 in today’s money.

Mourning dress really took off when Queen Victoria’s beloved husband, Prince Albert, died of typhoid in 1861. She insisted her entire court go into mourning and she wore mourning dress for the rest of her long life. She died in 1901. And as Princess Kate does today with her lustrous over the shoulder hair and perfect pins, Queen Victoria dictated fashion for the period. The middle-classes and even the lower classes were determined to mourn their loved ones appropriately, despite financial pressures. The days of wearing a black armband to mark your grief were over. Unless of course you were up for cutting disdain, as was the red-clad fashionista mentioned below.

 “A short time since, a lady appeared in a new ruby satin dress, with a band of crape around her arm. The fact of the dress being new, showed that poverty did not cause this incongruity. It is hardly ever those who are styled “the poor,” who err so against the accepted ideas of decency and respect. They always, however straitened they may be in circumstances, contrive to wear mourning for their deceased relatives.”

~Collier’s Cyclopedia

Queen Victoria's daughters in mourning with a bust of Prince Albert.

There were 3 distinct phases of mourning: full mourning, second mourning and half mourning.

Full Mourning

Full mourning lasted for a year. During this time dull black dresses were worn. Black silk dresses were allowed so long as they were heavily trimmed with crêpe. A mourning cap – black with streamers and ribbons – was to be worn for this entire period. At least initially, a veil covered the face. Some of the hats are quite beautiful – embellished with lace and sequins.

Collier’s Cyclopedia suggests that two full mourning dresses should be enough. For a year and a day you wore 2 dresses? My word! While often old dresses were dyed black, it was recommended that hats be made by specialist milliners. Home-made caps ‘soil so much more quickly than bought caps’. Mary Ann must have been grateful for this recommendation. No jewelery, apart from that made in jet, was worn in deep mourning. Girls under 17 never went into full mourning. It thought that young woman were not able to cope with the depth of the grief. I think it probably had more to do with the fact that your window of opportunity to attract a worthy husband was slim and there was nothing youthful, pretty or alluring about full mourning dress.

Second Mourning

Second mourning for a widow lasted for from 9 months to a year. Caps were not required and the crêpe was restricted to the trimmings at this stage. Silk and cashmere could be worn but never satin or velvet. Only jet jewelery was allowed. Often, jewellers made a piece for the bereaved using a lock of the deceased’s hair.

Half Mourning

After 2 years the mourning could be put off altogether but it was more seemly to enter half mourning for another 6 months. In half mourning, colours could be slowly re-introduced into the wardrobe starting with greys, lilacs and whites.

There were wildly complicated rules about the different lengths of mourning for various relatives. Looking in from the future, I really do need a guide-book.

Widow’s mourning was the deepest. A widow would be required to go through all three stages of mourning. Mourning for parents and children lasted a year: 6 months in full mourning, 3 in second mourning, 3 in half mourning. The child mortality rate was so high, some young mothers must have spent most of their lives in black. For grandparents: plain black for 3 months. For a brother or sister: full mourning for 3 months, plain black for 2 months and half mourning for 1 month. For uncles, aunts, nieces and nephews: plain black for 3 months. For great uncles and aunts: plain black for two months. For cousins: 6 weeks of mourning was enough, three of which were spent in half mourning. Servants were generally only put into mourning dress for the head of their households, although in some cases for all members of the family they served.

There were rules about the width of the brim of men’s hats; rules about uncovering and covering mirrors and brass fittings in the house; rules about the width of the black border around household notecards and calling cards. There were superstitions about which way the body should be removed from the house – feet first, if you were wondering.

And in amongst these fusty old rules, mountains of black crêpe and red-eyed mourners, sat Mary Ann Bradley, my cousin. She married her father’s apprentice, the widower John Roberts, at the age of 39. She had no more children after Mary Matilda. John Roberts died before she turned 50. Mary Matilda married and had children – one named after her mother. Mother and daughter lived together until Mary Ann’s death. Maybe they were best of friends. Mary Ann Bradley died in London in the winter of 1904; three years after Queen Victoria and as the mourning dress trade dwindled.

*sigh* Mary’s story has made me rather sad. I’m off to eat a bowl of ice cream in a yellow shirt.

One thought on “My Cousin Made a Black Bonnet- Mourning Dress in the 19th Century

  1. Pingback: H.R.H. The Princess of Wales’s Pet Dogs and a Kaiser Behaving Badly « tracyloveshistory

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