Connect with us

Netflix

Did Queen Victoria’s Black Mourning Clothes Give Birth to the Ready-to-wear Industry?

Published

on

In The Royals, it is claimed that Queen Victoria wearing mourning black after the death of Prince Albert not only set a standard etiquette for mourning but also made it fashionable to wear black after the death of a family member.
Image from The Royals | Credit: Netflix

In The Royals, it is claimed that Queen Victoria wearing mourning black after the death of Prince Albert in 1861 not only set a standard etiquette for mourning but also made it fashionable to wear black after the death of a family member in Britain.

True and true. But the practice of wearing dark-colored mourning clothes goes back to ancient Rome. And while mourning etiquette was already established before the Victorian era, Queen Victoria’s prolonged mourning which lasted until her own death made observation of mourning rules so popular that they were observed not only in court but outside it. The practice even spread to America as so memorably illustrated in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. Fortunately for us, while it still remains de rigueur to wear subdued colors to a wake or funeral, the rest of the stringent mourning etiquette went out of fashion by the early 1900’s.

And just what were those rules? Insofar as mourning clothes went, Michael Talboys (who once worked for Normal Hartnell who designed the wedding dresses of both Queen Elizabeth II and Princes Margaret) explained in The Royals:

The whole of the court goes into court mourning. And this began, really, with Queen Victoria. And it became the fashion to wear all black for six months of un-shiny fabric. The second six months you could then wear shiny fabrics and black jet jewelry. After that, there was a period where you’d go either into mauve or pearl grey. Or black and white is permitted.

In The Royals, Michael Talboys claims that after Queen Victoria made it fashionable to wear black mourning clothes, Jay's Mourning Warehouse tapped into the fashion trend and made ready-to-wear mourning clothing that signaled the first signs of ready-to-wear. Is that correct?

This dress was once worn by Queen Victoria. Image is public domain. Credit: Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of C.W. Howard, 1950

The public took to wearing mourning clothes that it spawned a new business industry. Jay’s Mourning Warehouse offered ready-made mourning dresses for men and women and could also dispatch dressmakers to clients who prefer custom-made mourning clothes.

Mr. Talboys got it wrong, however, when he said that Jay’s was the “beginning of the first signs of ready-to-wear.” For ready-to-wear mourning clothes, perhaps, but not ready-to-wear clothes in general.

In The Modernization of Fashion, Anne Hollander wrote that ready-to-made military uniforms were already being manufactured in the United States as early as 1812. And even if we limit the history of ready-to-wear in England alone, Bellatory says, “By the late 1700’s Bristol England was home to over 200 businesses that exported hates, gloves, drawers, pants, stockings, shirts, jackets, and footwear.”

So, there. Just because a program is labeled a “documentary”, it doesn’t always follow that everything in it is factual and accurate.