The Elitist History of Wearing Black to Funerals

Today, mourning attire is subdued and dutiful. It wasn’t always that way.

Lady Norma Major attending last Monday’s funeral of Queen Elizabeth II in Westminster Abbey, London
Gareth Fuller / Redux

Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral procession last Monday included one bespoke Jaguar hearse, two original works of music, three crown jewels atop the coffin, two corgis, at least 1,650 marching military personnel, 500 world leaders and other dignitaries—all watched by millions of television viewers worldwide. But among the event’s ostentation, one aspect was noticeably modest: the royal garb. Apart from those in military uniform, the family wore dark outfits that were understated, neat, and simple.

Sure, subtle cues reminded us of their provenance and wealth: Kate Middleton’s dress came from her go-to luxury designer Alexander McQueen, and the nonmilitary suits worn by some of the men appeared high end if subdued. But even the morsels of flash—Queen Consort Camilla’s large diamond brooch and the new Princess of Wales’s four-string pearl necklace—were worn in homage: The former had belonged to Queen Victoria; the latter had been owned by Elizabeth herself. Were a royal to have wandered out of the procession and into the quiet sea of mourners outside Westminster Abbey, you’d be forgiven for finding them indistinguishable.

Funerary dress code can be powerful when it makes royalty look, at first blush, like one of us. In contemporary England, as well as in the United States, the donning of subdued black clothing can be an equalizer. In its best moments, it is a common costume for people unified in grief. But black mourning attire, simple and accessible as it appears now, has a long history of being neither.

More than 400 years ago, the body of the first Queen Elizabeth was brought to Westminster Abbey in a largely dark-hued procession. Her coffin was accompanied by statesmen in black gowns and imposing hats. Even the horses were draped in fine black velvet. The color black’s use at funerals had some precedence: Since the sixth century, it had been deployed in the Christian Church for its suggestion, according to the 19th-century artist and professor F. Edward Hulme, of “the spiritual darkness of the soul unillumined by the Sun of righteousness.” By the 14th century, it was widely associated with death. But white and brown were also among the colors long considered suitable for mourning in the Anglican world—white because it was easily approximated by sun-bleaching undyed wool and linen, brown because it was similarly practical to produce; in multiple accounts from the 16th and 17th centuries, the latter was referred to interchangeably as “sad colour.”

What set black apart—and helped solidify its status as the shade of mourning by the time of Elizabeth I’s 1603 funeral—was its expense. Achieving a luxurious hue, coaxed from the red roots of the herb madder and the small bluish leaves of the flower woad, required multiple rounds of costly dyeing. Black-clad royal funerals were political theater, intended not just to console the bereaved but to put on a show so over the top that it reified the cultural crevasse between commoners and the ruling class. Funerals were the red carpets of the early modern era.

Extravagant displays of funerary excess weren’t just unattainable for common people; they were, for centuries, illegal. Beginning around the 1300s, England, and much of Europe, was governed by “sumptuary laws.” The laws made unorthodox fashion literally a crime by dictating the colors and fabrics that one could wear based on rank in society, making one’s social status evident upon first sight. Laborers, for instance, were permitted to wear linens and most lower-quality wools, but were barred from embroidered silk, tinseled satin, finer furs, certain buttons, and threads of gold, purple, and silver.

By the time of Elizabeth I’s funeral, however, England’s growing middle class was eager to dress not for the lot they had but for the life they desired. Policing grief garments, in turn, became a core component of England’s control-by-aesthetics. As the fashion historian Lou Taylor wrote in her 1983 book, Mourning Dress, the people in charge of overseeing aristocratic funerals were also tasked with ensuring “that no social-climbing upstart families displayed arms or carried out grand funerals to which they were not entitled.” Ignobles were fined for wearing mourning trains that trailed far longer than their social status allowed. An English proclamation banned “devising any new forms of apparel.” But aspirational mourners repeatedly broke the laws and paid the penalties.

Throughout the 17th and into the 18th century, upper-class panic over the haughtiness of grieving commoners continued to sweep through England. But by the 19th century, new technologies like the mechanized production of cloth and the nascency of synthetic dyes—which made the color black slightly cheaper to render—helped businessmen see dollar signs in death. Exploiting such industrial advancements, as well as the aspirations of the middle class, entrepreneurs including William Chickall Jay turned mourning attire into some of the first mass-produced “fast fashion.” Jay opened “Jay’s London General Mourning Warehouse” on London’s high-end Regent Street in 1841. Competing shops sprang up in imitation. And from their multistory, nearly block-long megastores, these entrepreneurs helped shape an entire tradition around death.

Together with new women’s magazines and “etiquette guides,” they codified distinct “mourning periods” that ensured steady demand. According to such guides, a man could avoid social scrutiny by wearing a black suit, a black watch chain, black buttons, and a black tie for three months following the death of his wife. But widows were required to visibly mourn for two and a half years, entering prescribed phases of ever-easing despair: The widow must pass a year and a day in the woven silk-and-wool blend known as bombazine plus black crepe, and another nine months in black, although with less of the lightweight, puckered crepe; she could introduce lustrous black fabrics and jewelry made of shiny jet in the following three months, and was permitted muted purples and grays in the final half year. With Jay’s Mourning Warehouse and other stores incessantly advertising the “latest mourning fashions,” few self-respecting Victorians would be caught dead in last season’s outfit.

When Queen Victoria died, in 1901 (after wearing exclusively black for her last 40 years—the ultimate flex following the death of her husband, Albert), much of the ostentation of the Victorian period died with her. World War I dealt black mourning attire more blows. Mourners eased off the ritual after fashionable cities such as Paris filled with black-clad pedestrians who had lost loved ones in battle, a weighty visible shift that wreaked havoc on national morale. And women, now working in wartime factory jobs, were unable to adhere to the ludicrously impractical demands of regimented mourning. The Great Depression put another nail in the coffin of Victorian consumerism. And by the 1980s, the all-black outfit was adopted into the broader worlds of fashion, as well as the punk and goth subcultures: An eyelet-studded black dress no longer represented a recent death, but rather portrayed an allegorical grief for the state of the world.

Our modern rituals—whether birthdays, weddings, or funerals—rarely emerge organically. Many of them are designed, marketed, and given legitimacy through faux-histories and an exaggerated sense of timelessness. But they also are created to respond, at least somewhat, to a human need. Death leaves a hole that ritual can help fill, however slightly. Today, donning black clothing at a funeral is an opportunity for the grieving to exchange individual expression for collective solace. In a sea of sameness, one can feel cocooned. The tradition of wearing black to funerals might be the most egalitarian it has ever been.

And yet, for others, the ritual can remain an opaquely defined obligation that one has to somehow not screw up. At worst, it is a shell of a tradition rooted in opulent inequality. Perhaps trying to find true solace in a tradition that was never intended to benefit the masses is futile.

Or maybe such traditions can be remade. I have no desire to return to the years-long grief protocols of the Victorian era. But the tradition of donning mourning clothes long after a loved one is buried still has value. It can mean that a griever’s burden is wordlessly announced; they can see other mourners on the street and share an empathetic nod. While old dictates cruelly required the bereaved to be visibly defined by their grief for months or years, today we’ve swung the opposite direction: Black clothing’s association with grief ends as soon as the funeral does. Perhaps a piece of jewelry, a pin, or a somber corsage is how I’d prefer to mourn—a voluntary, personal accessory, flexible enough to allow for individuality but identifiable enough to build community in loss. It asks, subtly, for some compassion. And it fits more like grief does on the best days we can hope for: not subsuming us, but indelibly a part of us.

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