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Five things about mourning during the Regency era

Halloween, Day of the Dead, and other pagan traditions that celebrate the harvest also remind us of those who have passed on. Many of our customs and traditions have changed since the early 19th century, but some are not so different. Here are five things to know about mourning during the Regency:

1. Wearing black

Black was a difficult color to maintain through washings and would have appeared as a striking contrast when so many fashionistas (men and women both) preferred to wear bright colors or white. Yet we know through fashion plates from that era, as well as Jane’s own words, that people of Regency England wore black during a period of mourning.

    “I am to be in bombazeen and crape, according to what we are told is universal here, and which agrees with Martha’s previous observation. My mourning, however, will not impoverish me….”

Jane to Cassandra,

Oct. 15, 1808

In this quote, she mentions “crape,” a matte fabric that helped mourners avoid anything shiny or flashy during a time of great sorrow and loss. In a similar letter in that same year, she mentions how her mother intends to have some clothes dyed black.

2. Full Mourning and Half Mourning

Mourning Fashion plate by Rudolph Ackerman 1817 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)
Mourning Fashion plate by Rudolph Ackermann 1817 (Credit: Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

In the Victorian Era, which followed the Regency, society held certain expectations for how long one was to maintain their state of mourning, depending on who had died and the deceased’s relationship to the mourner. While it appears similar rules were likely followed during the Regency Era, it is less clear exactly how long one was to be in mourning or half-mourning. Full mourning was the time directly following the death of a loved one. During full mourning, their clothing would be all black. After a while, probably six months to a year later, they would enter a time of half-mourning, when they would still wear dark clothes or outfits that would incorporate black elements — but some color could return. When a member of the royal family died, such as Princess Charlotte in 1817, the whole nation would observe a period of mourning.

3. Other Black items

In addition to wearing black clothing, a mourner (widows and widowers, in particular) would have been expected to express their mourning in other facets of their life. The bereaved would have put away their dainty floral tea set in favor of a solid black set.

Just because one was mourning the loss of a loved one does not mean that they must sacrifice their style. Accessories like shawls and hats would also have been black (and later purple during their period of half-mourning).

4. Mourning Jewelry

Shiny, colorful jewelry would have been put away, to be replaced by those with black gemstones. Another form of jewelry would also have been popular, as it would have allowed the mourner to keep a part of their loved ones with them: hair jewelry. Austen mentions hair jewelry in “Sense and Sensibility.”

“Mariannne saw a ring on Edward’s finger that had a lock of hair in it. She asked if it was Fanny’s hair. Edward blushed and, after a long pause, said that it was.”

Jane Austen,

“Sense and Sensibility”

Edward wore his token for a living loved one, but they were also popular for mourning the dead.

Special mourning jewelry would also feature special symbolism. An otherwise simple ring would become a treasured memento with the addition of a rose for love or an elm for friendship, for example. Some designs would feature an inscription of a loved one’s name or perhaps the date of their death. Some pendants may even feature a miniature portrait of the deceased.

5. Memento Mori

A memento mori is different from mourning jewelry; the focus is to remind the living that they, too, will one day die. Many memento mori keepsakes would look very similar to mourning jewelry, especially since  they appear to commemorate the same subject matter. What is the difference? Mourning jewelry could feature a name or date or the words “in memory of” because it was commemorating a specific person. The purpose of memento mori jewelry was to remind the wearer that everyone dies and would feature skulls or coffins or something similarly macabre. Memento mori evolved from the Flemish still-life paintings of the 1600s that would feature something dead or dying, such as a wilting flower or rotting fruit. Memento mori would have been less popular during the Regency Era in favor of mourning jewelry, however such items would have had some, er, die-hard fans.

To learn more about how people of the Regency Era mourned their loved ones, check out these links:

https://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2009/05/16/regency-mourning/

https://www.janeausten.co.uk/dressing-for-mourning-in-the-regency/

To see more on what was worn, check out:

http://www.uvm.edu/~hag/regency/mourning-ackermanns-1817-1821.html

To learn more about special mourning jewelry (and even see some items for sale) check out:

https://artofmourning.com/

To learn more about memento mori:

https://www.thesprucecrafts.com/memento-mori-or-mourning-jewelry-3995526


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