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Back to black

In Victorian times, if you saw anyone out and about in Crowborough dressed in black, then the chances are they were in mourning; wearing ‘widow’s weeds’ from the old English word ‘waed’ meaning garment. In those times, mourning clothes were taken very seriously, with widows expected to observe ‘full mourning’ for a year after death, including a veil over her face. Even children would be expected to wear dark clothing for many months following the death of a parent. 

This tradition no doubt took the lead from Queen Victoria herself. The death of Prince Albert in December 1861, at just 42, sent the Queen into a deep depression and she continued to wear black for the remaining 40 years of her life.

Wearing special clothes to mark a period of mourning goes back many years though. In the Bible, when Jacob’s son is devoured by a ‘wild beast’ he puts on ‘sackcloth’, an uncomfortable fabric made of coarse goat hair.

The Romans, it seems, were the first to wear dark clothing in mourning – a wool garment called a toga pulla. While, in the Middle Ages, rich people would wear expensive black or white crepe with long trains and hoods, while others would simply wear plain dark clothing.

The formality of mourning clothes has decreased over the years but the majority of people still dark clothing to a funeral and will tend to go in fairly formal dress.

In some eastern cultures, white is the colour of mourning, with Hindu worshippers wearing this colour, which symbolises purity and rebirth to a funeral.

In medieval times, European queens would wear white when in mourning. In fact, Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands reintroduced white as the colour of mourning in the Dutch royal family after the death of her husband, Duke Henry of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, in 1934 and it remains a tradition to this day.

Some of our families request that ‘no black’ is worn to their loved one’s funeral, to make the occasion seem less austere and more of a celebration. Others suggest a colour to be worn – perhaps a favourite shade. At the funeral of a child a little while ago, the family suggested a ‘hint of pink’.

People are certainly more inclined nowadays to wear something which really shows the personality of the person who’s died and, at a recent funeral service, not only were the flowers in a favourite football team’s colours but some of the congregation worn football shirts and scarves – and it seemed entirely appropriate.

If you haven’t been given a dress code for a funeral, it’s probably best to err on the side of caution and dress in a fairly conservative manner – wearing a dark colour, although not necessarily black. In rather the same way that gentlemen tend to keep a black tie in their wardrobe for such occasions, one lady told us recently that she has a black pashmina that she keeps not only for wrapping round her shoulders on the way to a dinner dance but also to drape over her jacket or dress at a funeral. If she finds that others aren’t wearing black, she says it’s easy to take off.

As a rule of thumb, if you wear what you might for an important job interview in an office environment, you’re probably be fine. 

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