Death Becomes Her: On the Progressive Potential of Victorian Mourning

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On the occasion of her Golden Jubilee, Queen Victoria was depicted in a woodcut by William Nicholson that was to become extremely popular (Figure 1). So stout that her proportions approach those of a cube, the Queen is dressed from top to toe in her usual black mourning attire, the white of her gloved hands punctuating the otherwise nearly solid black rectangle of her body. Less than thirty years later, another simple image of a woman in black would prove to be equally iconic: the lithe, narrow column of Chanel's black dress (Figure 2). Comparing the dresses depicted in the two images – the first a visual reminder of the desexualized stolidity of Victorian fidelity, the second image an example of women's burgeoning social and sexual liberation – might lead one to conclude that the only thing they have in common is the color black. And yet, twentieth- and twenty-first-century fashion historians suggest that Victorian mourning is the direct antecedent of the sexier fashions that followed. Jill Fields writes, for example, that “the move to vamp black became possible because the growing presence of black outerwear for women in the nineteenth century due to extensive mourning rituals merged with the growing sensibility that dressing in black was fashionable” (144). Valerie Mendes is more direct: “Traditional mourning attire blazed a trail for the march of fashionable black and the little black dress” (9). These are provocative claims given that most scholarly accounts of Victorian mourning attire – whether from the perspective of literary analysis, fashion history or theory, or social history or theory – offer no indication that such progressive possibilities were inherent in widows’ weeds. Instead, those accounts focus almost exclusively on chasteness and piety, qualities required of the sorrowful widow, as the only message communicated by her attire: “Widows’ mourning clothes announced the ongoing bonds of fidelity, dependence, and grieving that were expected to tie women to their dead husbands for at least a year” (Bradbury 289). The disparity in the two accounts raises the question: how could staid, cumbersome black Victorian mourning attire lead to dresses understood to embrace sexuality and mobility?
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)595-620
JournalVictorian Literature and Culture
Issue number4
Early online date25 Oct 2013
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2013


  • Mourning
  • Victorian fashion
  • Women's rights
  • Fashion theory


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