Visible Grief: 17th and 18th Century Mourning Attire

In this project update I’m sharing what I’ve learned about mourning attire.

Mourning clothing is a concept we are not entirely unfamiliar with. After all, 21st century Americans still abide by the practice of wearing black (or at least solemn colors) to funerals. However, mourning attire in the 17th and 18th centuries was more regulated, worn for long periods of time, and was an expected means of projecting one’s loss to the rest of society. There were different stages of mourning—first and second mourning—during the 17th and 18th century, in which different guidelines for attire would be followed. The first stage of mourning would be deep mourning, followed by a period of less intense mourning.

Anne Buck states that, in England, family mourning affected children’s dress from 1500 to 1900.[1] Thus, when English men and women crossed the Atlantic to Virginia, they carried the long tradition of mourning clothing with them. Mourning attire was yet another way to express grief, and visibly communicate grief to those unaware of one’s loss. The Virginia Gazette speaks to the availability of imported mourning attire in Williamsburg, VA. On March 1, 1738 Sarah Packe of Williamsburg paid for an advertisement in the Virginia Gazette that read: “Bombazeens, Crapes, and other Sorts of Mourning for Ladies; also Hatbands, and Gloves, for Gentlemen.”[2] Bombazeen is a misspelling of “bombazine,” which is defined as “a twill fabric constructed of a silk or rayon warp and worsted filling, often dyed black for mourning wear.”[3] While both men and women wore mourning attire, women typically wore and participated in mourning in a more visible way, as it fit into the societal ideas of the more sensitive woman.[4]

March 1, 1738 Virginia Gazette Excerpt

March 1, 1738 Virginia Gazette Excerpt

On March 1, 1738 the Virginia Gazette printed the news of the death of “Her Majesty WILHELMINA DOROTHEA CAROLINA Queen Consort of Great Britain.”[5] Instructions were given as to mourning attire, as well as decoration. Women’s “full dress” was established as: “Black Bombazeen, broad hemm’d Cambrick Linen, Crape Hoods, Shammy Shoes and Gloves, and Crape Fans.”[6] The article specified their “undress” as: “Dark Norwich Crape, and glaz’d Gloves.”[7] Gentlemen, on the other hand, were instructed to wear “Black Cloth, without Buttons on the Sleeves or Pockets, Cambrick Cravats, and Weepers, broad hemm’d, Shammy Shoes and Gloves, Crape Hatbands, Black Swords, Buckles and Buttons.”[8] The instructions go on, to say that “Coaches and Chairs” should be covered in black cloth, servants should wear “Shoulder-Knots of Black Silk Ribbon…” and that deep mourning should last six months, followed by another six months of second mourning.[9] To follow these instructions one had to have enough money to acquire the clothing and accessories needed to follow the fashion. As Kate Haulman points out, while these directives appear in the popular press for all to see, they were clearly advising the Virginia gentry, not the general population.[10] Children observing the mourning for the queen would learn—not only about death—but about social hierarchy, and where he of she fell within the continuum.


It appears that mourning clothing was recognizable to the point that people were very familiar with the appearance of certain mourning items. A listing for a runaway slave on October 17, 1766 in the Virginia Gazette described the young boy who had escaped his enslavement wearing a “light mourning waistcoast, with white metal buttons.”[11] This seems to suggest that mourning waistcoats were so standardized that no description of the item, beyond the color of buttons, was necessary for identification. The notice also raises many questions: How did a young “4 feet 6 inches high” slave boy obtain the waistcoat?[12] Was it given to him second-hand when it was deemed unfit to wear? Or, did some slaves adapt Anglo-American mourning clothing? Unfortunately, we will probably never know.

It’s possible that children, and maybe even slaves such as the runaway mentioned above, were given second-hand or re-sewn mourning clothing. Baumgarten asserts that some slaves, especially those in the household, were given or willed used clothing.[13] The practice of remaking existing clothing was widespread across all levels of society; expensive fabrics in particular would not have been retired simply because the garment went out of fashion or no longer fit the person.[14] Lou Taylor wrote about English mourning clothing, stating that “the familiar standby of dyeing ordinary clothes black was the cheapest way of providing children’s mourning clothes.”[15] Thus, beyond the possibility of getting second-hand mourning clothing passed down, it’s possible that children’s mourning clothing was created by dyeing an ordinary outfit black. It’s also possible that children in early Virginia simply wore white instead. Although speaking about English children, Buck asserts that rather than donning black clothing, children and young girls would commonly wear white clothing in combination with black ribbons.[16]

Folzenlogen contends that the year 1760 saw a change in children’s mourning attire. She states that prior to that year, children wore mourning clothing identical to that of adults, but from 1760 on, their costume was distinct from that of adults.[17] These assertions about mourning clothing fit with Baumgarten’s statement that “by 1760 the already well-established fashion was for little boys and girls to wear white dresses called frocks that had sashes at the waste,” a style far different from the earlier adult-inspired children’s clothing.[18] Thereafter, children began to wear different mourning clothing than adults. This differentiation fit with changing views of childhood in the second half of the eighteenth century.

Nowadays, people typically wear black on the day of a funeral, but beyond that, people are expected to return to their normal clothing. Just like mourning jewelry which went out of style, mourning attire is no longer worn for long periods of time. This project makes we wonder: did they understand the process of grieving and healing better than we do now? It seems that visible signs of mourning—like mourning clothing—allowed people to make their losses known, and for children (and really anyone), it likely allowed for another means of processing grief and making that grief visible to the rest of society.



[1] Anne Buck, Clothes and the Child: A Handbook of Children’s Dress in England 1500-1900 (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1996), 143.

[2] Sarah Packe, “Bombazeens, Crapes, and other Sorts of Mourning,” The Virginia Gazette, March 1, 1738.

[3] “Bombazine,”, Accessed August 3, 2016.

[4] Maureen Daly Goggin and Beth Fowkes Tobin, eds, Women and the Material Culture of Death (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2013), 43-46.

[5] The Virginia Gazette, “London, November 15,” March 1, 1738.

[6] The Virginia Gazette, “London, November 15,” March 1, 1738.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Kate Haulman, The Politics of Fashion in the Eighteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011), 40.

[11] The Virginia Gazette, “Run away form the subscriber at No a Negro boy named Sam,” October 17, 1766.

[12] The Virginia Gazette, “Run away form the subscriber at No a Negro boy named Sam,” October 17, 1766.

[13] Linda Baumgarten, Eighteenth-Century Clothing at Williamsburg (Williamsburg, VA: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1993), 66.

[14] Baumgarten, Eighteenth-Century Clothing at Williamsburg, 29.

[15] Lou Taylor, Mourning Dress: A Costume and Social History (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1983), 177.

[16] Buck, Clothes and the Child, 144.

[17] Folzenlogen, “Mourning Miniature for a Grieving Family,” Art of Mourning.

[18] Baumgarten, 76.


  1. aenicholson says:

    Hi Susannah,

    This is an interesting subject. I liked your comments in the last paragraph about their understanding of grief. From what I know, it was certainly a more social and socially regulated experience than how we understand it, but I’d love to hear the results of your research project.

  2. jpmalanson says:

    Hi Susannah,

    This is a really cool project, and I think it’s really interesting that you’ve been able to use 18th century newspaper articles to help support your research. One thing that I wonder is how common these sorts of articles or advertisements were. I understand that there may be limited copies of the Virginia Gazette for you to examine, but I think it would be interesting to see whether or not advertisements for mourning clothes were common across decades. I also thought it was interesting that you touched on the class issue of wearing mourning clothes, and that while instructions on dressing were issued for all to see, only the gentry could likely afford to follow them. Have you found any evidence of lower classes tending to have mourning attire of their own kind or were they were mostly left out of this type of expression? I’m looking forward to reading more, and especially if you find more information on how mourning clothes can reinforce social hierarchies and class divisions.

  3. Hi Susannah!

    Really cool subject– I’ve never really thought much deeper about the significance of mourning attire. It is interesting to think of how grief was displayed back then, and comparing it to the modern day. Perhaps even modern technology has played a role in allowing people to display their grief. We often see the use of all kinds of social media to remember and honor loved ones who have passed.

  4. Hey Susannah,

    What a cool topic to do research on. I especially liked when you talked about how the ability to wear mourning clothing became a mark of social standing in a society because I think that nowadays we definitely do not see it that way. Nowadays we see mourning as something that we want to avoid, but because it was considered a more high society thing back then I can imagine that people of lower standing would actually want to mourn…if only to increase their station…which is interesting to me….I also feel like mourning over time has become a more personal experience rather than the social one it used to be back in the 17th and 18th centuries. I know you said in the last paragraph that maybe back then they understood the process of grieving better and were more open to expressing it with mourning attire for a much longer period of time but was this more prolonged visible mourning a personal choice or was it something that society dictated and it’s members felt bound to follow?

    Very interesting research and very well written! Thank you for giving me another way to see mourning. All the best with the rest of your work!


  5. Hi Susannah,

    Your research topic is so awesome! I had never thought of ways of mourning as reflective of historic and cultural trends. You mentioned a change in children’s mourning attire starting in the year 1760, and mentioned that the changes corresponded with changing views on childhood at the time. I think it’s so interesting that you can observe historical patterns via observations of trends in common day things like fashion and attire. What kind of changes were occurring at that time that shifted how people thought about children?

    Good luck with everything!