A widow's veil has been traditionally seen as part of Christian funerals for centuries. Though it is not commonly worn now, the Victorian mourning veil has an interesting history behind it that influenced present-day mourning dress.
Traditions of the Victorian Mourning Veil
The Victorian mourning veil was more than just a simple black lace face covering. It was made of black crêpe fabric and, according to etiquette maven Emily Post, the veil had to be long enough to come "to the bottom edge of her skirt...as well as down her back." Crepe fabric is a type of heavy silk that feels stiff to the touch and can be hot and uncomfortable to wear.
Queen Victoria Wore a Mourning Veil for 40 Years
After Queen Victoria's husband Prince Albert passed in 1861, she wore the mourning veil and some form of mourning dress up until her death in 1901. She never wore her Imperial State Crown again because it would have required her to take off her mourning veil. Queen Victoria's dedication to her deceased husband had a significant influence on the Victorian mourning customs of women. Mourning veils and dress were worn primarily by middle- and upper-class women and were a way to establish one's status visibly.
Veils Were Part of Strict Mourning Etiquette
Widows were expected to display their grief publicly rather than quietly reflecting in private. It would have been unthinkable for a grieving widow to not wear mourning clothes in public. In fact, everything she wore in public had to reflect that she was in mourning, which meant that any accessories such as an umbrella or jewelry had to be black to match the veil and dress.
Veils Were Worn for Months and Years
There were three periods of mourning, and each had their own veil and dress requirements.
Deep mourning lasted about three months, and the mourning veil covered a woman's head, including their face. This was called the "weeping veil," since women could cry without being noticed as their faces were practically hidden. Women were also required to wear a long black crêpe dress known as "widow's weeds."
Second, or full, mourning lasted two to two-and-a-half years, although some women stayed in this phase for the rest of their life. During this period, women would remove or pin back the section covering their faces but continue to wear the veil in back. This look was called "slighting the mourning."
The third phase was half mourning. In this phase, the veil and Victorian mourning dress colors could change from solid black to black with some white, gray, mauve, or deep purple. Victorian mourning jewelry during this phase was made from black pearls or jet, which has a dull black glassy appearance. Often the hair of the dead person was woven into pieces of jewelry for widows to wear.
Wearing the Veil Differed for Family Members
The longest mourning periods were reserved for a women's spouse. If other members of her family died, the period where she was expected to wear the mourning veil and dress was shorter.
The mourning period for parents was between six to 12 months.
The mourning period for children under age 10 was six months and six weeks if the child was an infant.
The mourning period for children age 10 and up was six to 12 months.
A brother or sister was mourned for six to eight months.
An aunt or uncle was mourned for about three to six months.
Close friends were mourned for a minimum of three weeks.
The Veil Symbolized Death
The color black and the veil covering the face was considered a symbol of death and the loss of life. Because the black crêpe fabric was designed not to reflect any light, it was also considered a symbol of the removal of light from the widow's life.
Fashion Was Still in Play
Although the black veil was considered a way for widows to display themselves as humble before death and unconcerned with the vain trappings of fashion, many women skirted these assumptions. Embellishments and details using black pearls, jet, and lace were added to mourning veils, and the cut of the dresses were made to match current Victorian fashions as a way to express individuality and status.
Mournings Veils Served as Shields
Although the mourning veil might seem restrictive to modern tastes, many Victorian women appreciated it as a shield against advances by men. The mourning veil allowed them to move about in public without worrying about men approaching them for nefarious reasons. Veiled women in black were actually considered sexually attractive at that time, and it was not uncommon for widows to deal with unwanted male attention.
Mourning Veils Were Toxic
The crêpe fabric used to make the mourning veil involved dyes that were actually toxic to many women. The dyes used to make the veils frequently leaked onto the wearer's skin if it became wet, and the stains were difficult to remove. The dyes also shed dust particles, and long-term wearing of the mourning veil could lead to skin conditions, breathing and respiratory problems, vision disorders, and even blindness. In some cases the veils actually led to the death of the mourning woman because they regularly breathed in toxic dust from chemicals such as arsenic, chromium, benzene, potassium dichromate, and copper chloride. During the late 1800s, articles began to appear in medical journals and regular newspapers discussing the deleterious side effects of mourning veils.
Mourning Veils and Dress Were Big Business
It was considered bad luck to keep mourning veils and clothing in the home once the traditional full mourning period was over. Women thus had to buy mourning veils and appropriate attire each time a family member passed, and this could be quite often as there was a higher mortality rate back in Victorian times. Courtaulds, a company in the United Kingdom which produced crêpe, became extremely successful during the 19th century because of the mourning wear business. Another success story was Jay's of Regent Street in London, which ran a booming business catering only to mourners purchasing clothing.
Mourning Veils and Dress Faded Around World War I
Wearing mourning veils and full mourning dress became less strict during World War I for several reasons. Because women were needed to work in industry to help with the war effort, wearing a long mourning veil was impractical and difficult to maintain. Moreover, dealing with the massive deaths that came about due to the war became overwhelming not just for women but all of society, and strict mourning etiquette became less important. The toxic nature of the mourning veil's materials also became more widely decried by physicians, and this influenced etiquette guides and the fashion press to promote less strict mourning customs and dress.
The Victorian Mourning Veil's Legacy
While wearing such strict and toxic mourning veils and dresses is no longer in fashion today, the custom still made its mark on funeral dress. The wearing of black still survives as expected etiquette at Christan funerals, and it's not uncommon for widows to wear black or dark clothes in the mourning period after their spouse's death. Thankfully, present day widows do not have to deal with wearing clothes that could potentially kill them in the process of displaying their grief for their loved one.