tips · writing

Mourning Clothes in 1900

grieving woman
grieving woman

Part of writing is researching. I didn’t know anything when I started my manuscript other than my assumptions on mourning, some of which were right, others not-so-much.

In my novel, Meg is newly widowed. Though, during the early 1900’s standards for mourning dress were waning, as one of the wealthiest families in her area she would have been expected to wear it. The gowns were often made of crepe and featured shiny buttons, lace, and fringe unlike the more plain dresses of earlier generations.

Meg herself is not a frilly girl. She works hard so her clothing is simple and easy (as it can be, being a woman) to work in. She’s on a huge ranch and must collect eggs, work in the garden, wash clothes, cook, sew, and many other tasks. Meg actually took offense to the gowns her mother brought which were from London and high-fashion mourning.

During that period, mourning clothing was actually helping develop the clothing industry. You can read more about it here. The need to get clothing quickly, and in the current fashion, sped up manufacturing and delivery.

A not-so-fun fact about mourning clothes: The dye did not adhere well to crepe and when it got wet with warm water, would bleed and fade. Women had to avoid getting caught in the rain or spilling any warm liquid, like wash water, on their mourning garments.

In a scene that was eventually cut from my novel, Meg removes all the frill from the dresses she is brought and turns them into more suitable mourning for someone who needs to both mourn and work hard. I’ve included the clipped scene below. (Caveat, this scene was cut early on and is not near as polished as it would be if it were staying).


“I have to get you up and dressed.” Rose frowned.

“You haven’t helped me get dressed since I was little. I can manage a few extra buttons.” Meg scoffed.

“Your mother had these made about six months ago in Europe and they just arrived. She wanted to be prepared for whatever might happen. Wish for the worst and that is what you will get.” Rose shook her head and lifted one of the dresses like it might bite her. “They have more buttons and ribbons than what you normally wear, seems disrespectful to dress up to honor the dead. I am sure she had hoped it was your father though, and not Chase.”

“I agree with you, both on the dresses and mother, though I am sure she is just fine with Chase gone. I won’t wear any of that.” Meg stated simply.

Meg looked at the dresses her mother had brought, fingering the stiff, crinkly fabric and frowning. They were huge, awful monstrosities with black buttons down the front. Every one would require a corset, which Meg had always refused to wear, some of them would even require a bustle. How were you supposed to work a ranch, or even a kitchen, with cages around you? She usually wore her skirts long, as did every other woman, with a few petticoats underneath. That was good enough in her book, she’d always thought a nice sturdy camisole was a great replacement for the constricting torture that was a corset. Women in town could wear all the extra trappings, it just was not for her.

If she was going to use any of these, she’d have to cut off the bottom hem of the dresses for the fabric she would need to widen the bodice. At least the whole dress was made of the same fabric, so the splicing wouldn’t be as noticeable. Meg worked for hours, making each dress more to her needs. As she would sweat, her hands would get the fabric wet and it turned her hands black. She scowled at the stains, washing her hands multiple times during the job.

When she was done with her alterations, she was left with four modest mourning outfits. All of the unnecessary buttons and ribbons removed, all the extra fabric to accommodate a bustle gone. She was left with plain black dresses that had a slight shine to them as their only adornment. Meg had left one dress as her mother had bought it to wear to the funeral. As the widow, she wasn’t supposed to go, but she’d like to see anyone try and stop her.

What was the last bit of interesting information you discovered researching for a novel?

Follow my blog with Bloglovin