Queen Victoria’s mourning dress

6 August 2011

One of the highlights of my recent visit to London was the opportunity to get a close look at one of Queen Victoria’s mourning bodices, which is kept lovingly enshrined with its matching skirt in the vast archives of the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection in Kensington Palace.

I was really taken aback by how exquisite and tastefully ornate the embroidery and lace decoration was and, I’ll be honest, it made me see the mourning Queen Victoria in a whole new light. I’ve never really looked closely at images of the mourning Queen – her black garb is too heavy and forbidding and her expression too dourly unhappy to really invite uncouth scrutiny from the likes of me.

However, I now find myself looking more closely at photographs and paintings of Queen Victoria in her autumn years, noting the fact that she may well be in deepest darkest mourning but was clearly still rather partial to delicate feminine touches of lace, jet trimmed embroidery and the bright glitter of black sequin spangles on dusky hued gauze.

We can only imagine now how charismatic Victoria was in her lifetime but she must have made an arresting sight – only five feet tall and with a rather portly build in her later years (let’s give her a break though – she had nine children, tubby Hanoverian genes and the ultimate desk job after all) she still managed to draw every single eye whenever she entered the room. The profound black of her dress must have helped, of course but clearly she was just as glittering as ever.

This shouldn’t be a surprise really though – Victoria was only forty two years old when her beloved Albert died suddenly in December 1861, which isn’t all that much older than I am right now and I’m sitting here dressed in All Saints with pink hair. Clearly her love for Albert was much stronger than any considerations of fashion but then Victoria had never really been a modish, trend setting Queen in the manner of Marie Antoinette, Anne Boleyn or the Empress Joséphine. Her taste as a young woman had been rather gaudy in fact, with an emphasis on bright colours, as much jewellery as she could pile on at once, a lot of flounces and very loud prints.

Of course, Victoria can’t possibly have known how long she would survive Albert for after his death (forty years!) and wouldn’t have foreseen just how long her mourning would carry on for. The uncharitable side of me sometimes whispers that maybe it went on for so long because Victoria had beaten Coco Chanel to a realisation of the miraculously slimming properties of an all black outfit, but of course that’s just ridiculous, right.

Also, along with murmurs of ‘There’s a lot to be said for grief counselling’ and ‘maybe one of her friends should have staged an intervention after about twenty years or so’ that’s probably a rather flippant modern response to the concept of mourning, which is one that we don’t really generally understand all that well any more. Not that the bereaved are expected to snap out of it and hook up with new partners straight away, but those who choose to remain single for the rest of their days and especially those who continue to wear mourning are definitely regarded as something a little unusual.

Which is a little weird actually – after all, life expectancy is longer these days and medical care infinitely better which means that death is itself rather more unusual than it was in Victorian times when widows in black weeds were actually a commonplace sight.

When my mother in law died a couple of years ago, my husband and I often remarked to each other in much distress that we didn’t know what to do and lamented the fact that although there are countless books dictating the etiquettes of weddings, christenings and prom dates – there is very little guidance when it comes to behaving appropriately after some passes on. This, I think, is where the Victorians had the advantage of us as they always knew exactly what to do and had very strict codes about how long to wear mourning for – two years for full mourning with a crepe ‘weeping’ veil (crepe is a nasty fabric that is prone to disintegration and can actually cause breathing problems if you inhale it) and then a gradual easing off when ornamentation could be added to the black dressed and then, gradually, the bereaved lady could begin to dress in soft greys and lilacs. Etiquette also dictated when to call and leave condolence cards, what to eat at a wake, what flowers to place on a grave and then how to tastefully remember those that are no longer with us with jet and hair jewellery.

I’m not sure that I’d like a return to such displays of profound and ostentatious public sorrow (it’d be unnerving for a start – ever seen The Woman in Black?) but maybe the Victorians got something right…