Mourning becomes her

This is another painting from the Birmingham Museum Collection which riveted me during my teen years. It’s called Boer War and it’s by John Byam Shaw. Naturally as a melencholic adolescent I loved it for the rather stagy, sensual, wallow in death atmosphere. I could very much identify with the feelings of the young widow, forced to wear black. I had also just read “Gone with the Wind” where Scarlett revolts at the business of High Victorian Mourning.

But thinking about this now, this forced wearing of black seems quite a good idea, not some dreadful cultural imposition. We live these days in a culture where being depressed is common yet is not at all permitted. We are all supposed to be happy all the time.  The Victorians were not so silly. They fully acknowledged the fact that death would make you miserable and they formulated elaborate dress codes which permitted the wearer to signal publicly the state of their feelings.  Instead of having to pretend nothing was wrong, you could point out to others, from your hat to your shoes, and even with the black ribbons threaded through your underthings, that you were sad and would be for some time to come.  This seems to me to be honest in a way that we are not these days.

Mourning dress ensemble

Mourning ensemble in the V & A.

Dress fabric and paper

Dress fabric and wrapper from Peter Robinson’s mourning warehouse, also in the V & A.

Worth noting too that a  dress length in 1892 was 7 yards long!


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