The American Civil War, from 1861 to 1865, took an unprecedented toll on the nation’s population, with casualties estimated at over 600,000, and left few families untouched by tragedy. Likewise, the death of Prince Albert in 1861 plunged the entire nation of Britain into sympathetic mourning, and the widowed Queen Victoria would stay in mourning for the rest of her life. While everyone in society felt the specter of death, it was primarily women who visually displayed their grief through specific changes in dress and behavior in the 1860s. How closely a woman chose to follow mourning customs was largely an individual preference, influenced by economics, community standards, and the mourner’s relationship to the deceased.
Though the stereotypical image of a woman in a black dress comes to mind, mourning was also largely indicated by a change in head coverings such as veils, bonnets and caps, and accessories like collars, cuffs and under-sleeves. Certain materials were also used expressly for mourning, such as crape, to make or trim these head coverings andc accessories. Likewise, certain colors other than black were associated with various stages or degrees of mourning. When examining images from the period, particularly photographs, these specific millinery items and accessories can be key to identifying whether or not a woman might be in mourning, especially since period photographs are not a reliable indication of color. Black was also a fashionable and “serviceable” color for dresses, thus not every woman depicted in black could be said to be in mourning.
This presentation seeks to examine the history, design, and use of mourning millinery and accessories in the 1860s by looking at extant items and period images and documents to develop an understanding of the importance of these items in interpreting mid-19th century mourning culture.
Samantha McCarty is a historic clothing technician for Historical Clothing Services at the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. Originally from Huntington Beach, California, Samantha graduated with honors from Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan with a degree in history. In 2013, she was awarded the Quirinus Breen Prize for her research on 1890s bicycle clothing and culture in Grand Rapids. She served an internship with the Margaret Hunter Millinery Shop at Colonial Williamsburg and was a member of the First Oval Office Project, a collaboration between the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia to recreate George Washington’s sleeping marquee tent.