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Essay: Fashion in Mourning

by Amy de la Haye on 17 June 2021

Dress historian and curator Amy de la Haye explores the ties between fashion and death, analysing mourning dress in early 19th century London - a period that has provided vital inspiration for fashion designers including John Galliano.

Dress historian and curator Amy de la Haye explores the ties between fashion and death, analysing mourning dress in early 19th century London - a period that has provided vital inspiration for fashion designers including John Galliano.

I have just acquired this rare and intriguing hand-coloured engraving which depicts fashionable London mourning dress, published by The Lady’s Magazine in September 1805. The Victorian cult of mourning is well documented, but fashion and death were also fashionable and etiquette-correct practices, led by the court and followed by the rest of society in 1805. Rather than employ contextual narrative prose, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to explore thematically how this fashion plate might be read as fashion communication and material object, and to ponder its biography from 1805 until June 2021.

Hand-coloured engraving depicting London mourning dress, published by The Lady's Magazine, September 1805, (22cm x 13cm), courtesy Amy de la Haye
I now wonder whether the sartorial expression of grief might ease the daily passage of the bereaved in a culture that fails to actively engage with, or support, how we survive death.

Fashion in 1805:

The Neoclassical (inspired by the Greco-Roman world), empire-line chemise was the fashionable style for day and evening wear. Daytime dresses were usually made from fine cotton, which was widely portrayed as egalitarian, although it was a product of colonial domination and slavery. Hand-woven textiles, with only minimal self-fabric decoration or self-coloured embroidery, were worn for all occasions and times of day.

Clothes were stitched by hand; they were valuable and highly valued commodities. Accessories, including fan, shawl and matching shoes as seen here, comprised vital components of the total look. To highlight the length of the neck, hair was worn up tied with a bandeau and cultivated curls were coaxed to frame the face. It was primarily the wearing of black that distinguished mourning from everyday dress (unlike the Victorian period when everyday fashion was elaborate, colourful, embellished and textured).

London Mourning dress in 1805:

Black has been used as a noncolour of fashionable dress since the fifteenth century; its association with death and mourning can be dated back to antiquity (3000 BC to the mid-400s). In 1805, Paris and London were the leading fashion capitals and the latter would develop a reputation for mourning dress with all its accoutrements, including the crafting of black flowers and jewellery.

Periods of mourning depended upon the relationship with the deceased. Following the death of her husband, a woman was expected to withdraw from social life and wear phased mourning dress for a period of two to two and a half years. A period of full mourning lasted one year and a day, during which time she dressed entirely in black, often with a veil masking her face when in public. All dress surfaces were matte and self-fabric decoration minimal, such as the crossed latticework on the short sleeves and down the centre front of this dress. Crape was the standard fabric for mourning. It is a lightweight fabric woven from wool or gummed silk in a plain weave and has a crinkled effect due to the twisting of the fibres. It is a dry and scratchy fabric that is uncomfortable to wear.

After a year and a day, the wearing of grey and various shades of purple, mauve and heliotrope were approved for the ensuing year to eighteen months. The ‘shadow’ necklace and armlet depicted in this fashion plate, might be the engraver’s artistic license. Jewellery was rarely worn during the first year and – like fabrics – it was black with a matte surface, ideally carved from jet mined from Whitby in Yorkshire. As death was so commonplace many women spent much of their lives attired in mourning dress. Not surprisingly, the business of death became a major industry, not least because there was a belief (quite possibly a ruse circulated by the dressmakers!) that it was unlucky to keep mourning dress in the house. Men, whose daily dress was somber, were required to do no more than wear a ‘weeper’ (a crape armband) and/or trim their hat in black for three months following the death of a wife; after which time it was socially acceptable to re-marry.

Publication:

The Lady’s Magazine was published from 1770 until 1847. In the first issue, the editor declared - with equity unusual at the time - the magazine could be equally enjoyed by, ‘…the housewife as well as the peeress…’. The Lady’s Magazine featured articles on fashion, etiquette, fiction, poetry, music, health, society news and gossip and became the market leader - it was the first magazine to feature fashion plates.

Close-up

Fashion plate:

As the core source of fashion news and dissemination, women purchased magazines with fashion plates in order to take them to their dressmakers to copy or adapt the style depicted for themselves. Unlike fashion illustrations, which often convey an abstract aesthetic and foreground evocation, the function of the fashion plate was to communicate in detail the garment design - cut, drape and decoration – and as seen here, it was common to depict both front and rear views. Aesthetics were also deemed important and, in addition to showing a complete look, quite often the location in which it might have been worn was suggested. The nature of mourning dress might explain the absence of contextual signifiers here.

This plate was likely commissioned following the death of Prince William Henry, Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh, grandson of King George ll and younger brother of King George lll, on 25 August 1805. A royal death plunged the whole nation into some degree of mourning. In a letter to her sister Cassandra, novelist Jane Austen pondered, ‘I suppose everyone will be in black for the D of G. Must we buy lace or will ribbon do?’ (Davidson, H. Fashion in the Time of Jane Austin: 208)

Printing technique:

It is an engraving, which involved drawn lines being etched or engraved onto a copper plate (hence the term fashion plate). From 1790 engraved fashion plates were hand-coloured, a process that was time-consuming and costly.

Paper:

Paper making dates back to 1st century China. By 1805, it was made by paper mills, employing pre-industrial techniques, from recycled rags using a mould and vat. The occupational rag picker appealed greatly to the German cultural critic Walter Benjamin – oft quoted by fashion theorists – to develop his philosophy of the historical leftover and the writing of history as a performative practice. As such, we might imagine the biography of this dress ordered from an exclusive Mayfair dressmaker that was passed on to a lady’s maid. Worn, adapted and passed on over time, it was – when there was no wear left - recycled to make a rag rug for the domestic interior. When this was truly threadbare, it was consigned to the rag and bone man. Eventually it was recycled into paper that would – in a poetically cyclical process – be printed to portray the latest modes from London or Paris.

Object biography:

How has this fashion plate survived and in such good condition for 216 years? In the late 1960s the historical and financial value of fashion started to be recognised within academia, museums and the auction houses. As the sale of individual fashion plates could command higher sums than selling a magazine intact, they were dissembled and sold by specialist dealers. This plate was, over the last thirty or so years, mounted on acid-free card by someone who recognised its ‘value’ and was aware of conservation practices. The raised mount would also have protected the surface of the engraving if stored shelved or stacked. A professional colleague gave it to me knowing that I will appreciate, use and safeguard its future.

Reflection on fashion and death:

I used to believe the imposition of mourning dress on women was oppressive. My own experience is limited. However, having 26 years ago experienced the death of someone I loved dearly and, earlier this month, participated in Fevered Sleep’s incredible This Grief Thing project, I now wonder whether the sartorial expression of grief might ease the daily passage of the bereaved in a culture that fails to actively engage with, or support, how we survive death. Such discussions are of course timely.

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