Inside the Collection

Memento Mori- Mourning dress in Australia

Black silk mourning dress on manikin
A8754-1 Mourning dress, satin, probably worn by Amelia Hackney, maker unknown, Bathurst, New South Wales, Australia, c. 1857.Collection: Powerhouse Museum

Victorian mourning tradition included from commissioning clothing, jewellery and accessories, to the more unusual traditions like post mortem photography. I was interested in taking a closer look at this forgotten practice of excess in the Australian tradition, uncovering the extensive practices of widows in the Victorian era.

Evidence of mourning costume predates the Roman Empire, and we have since seen the systematic use of particular colours adopted in the portrayal of grief. It was only in the 19th century that the act of wearing black become a fine art for women in Europe and across the western world.

Long before black was considered chic, the colour was primarily worn to pay respect to a departed loved one. The art of mourning was popularised by Queen Victoria after the death of her husband Prince Albert in 1861, where black was commonly worn by widows in particular for a number of years in a showcase of heartfelt devotion. Although Victoria continued to mourn for the remainder of her life, social decorum soon adopted a new standardised period for the act of grieving.

Etiquette dictated a strict and complex set of phases devoted to wearing black. It was generally accepted that a widow would spend one year and one day in a period of ‘deep mourning’ whereby clothes were made of black crepe, usually with a veil or cap and no ornamentation or jewellery. Following this period, a woman would usually acquire a wider range of black fabrics including silk, but remain laced with the traditional crepe. Up to 18 months later she might begin ‘half mourning’, where appropriate jewellery and minimal decoration began to appear and after two years other colours like grey and mauve were introduced. This progression demonstrated a woman’s slow and respectful return to society from an intense commitment that allowed for public displays of grieving.

Unlike our European counterparts, the Australian attitude has always been a bit more relaxed. Australian women were not as tightly bound by the prescribed Victorian traditions. Although the wearing of black was widely adopted in colonial Australia, the observance of prescribed mourning periods were usually reserved for those whose grief was not so great, so that a woman would not remarry prematurely or disgrace her family.

Detail of lace work on sleeve of mourning dress
Detail from 1850s mourning dress. A8754-1, Collection: Powerhouse Museum

This mourning dress, available on the Australian Dress Register, was presumably worn by Amelia Hackney after the death of her mother. It is an example of the Australian adoption of mourning practice, with the characteristic high neck line and simple ornamentation. The use of black satin may suggest its use during the period of ‘half mourning’ or be indicative of our relaxed approach to fabric selection.

The highly ornate tendencies of the Victorians show no holding back in the extravagance of mourning. From the fabric choice of her bodice to the ring on her finger, the art of mourning attire was entirely focussed on displaying ones upmost despair. Mrs. F. Douglas in her book ‘The Gentlewoman’s Book of Dress’ c. 1890 describes the proper etiquette;

‘If she lifts her skirts from the mud, she must show by her frilled black silk petticoat and plain black stockings her grief has penetrated to her innermost sanctuaries…Even the brooch that fastens the dress, and the chain that retains the watch, must do their duty in the livery of woe.’

Every element of the garment held symbolism, including the heavy matte crepe which in its lack lustre appearance ensured the wearer was not highlighted when inconsolable.

When accessories were worn, jet jewellery was the most common material worn during the ‘half mourning’ period as it was royally endorsed by Queen Victoria and portrayed one’s status and wealth. Although popularised for its black colouring, its expense meant it was promptly imitated by cheaper materials like vulcanite and Bakelite. In addition, accessories like gold lockets or pearl rings encased a lock of hair of the deceased and became popular in mourning sentiment long after the period of black attire had ended.

The garment and later added jewellery were all part of a ceremony that highlighted our short lived existence. Memento Mori, or ‘Remember your Mortality’ is a Latin phrase that was commonly inscribed on jewellery to ensure the connection between the living and the dead remained through an object or talisman.

A range of personalised trinkets soon became synonymous with remembrance like seed pearls to represent tears, as well as the ubiquitous black jet for sorrow. Much of the jewellery was bought for fashion or sentiment rather than mourning, and these specific pieces soon became lifelong commitments to their lost loved one.

Detail of gold mourning pendant
2004/141/1 Mourning pendant and case (not shown) , gold / hairwork / seed pearls / paper / silk / metal, made by John Wilkinson Jeweller & Silversmith, Leeds, England, 1826. Collection: Powerhouse Museum.

Unlike the strict customs for women who were perceived to have tumultuous emotions, men usually adopted a simple pair of black gloves or a headband to their typical black attire of the 19th century. The transition of English aristocrats from the carriage to horseback saw black costume as a practical requirement that transcended the significance consigned to women. The elegance associated with black menswear for fashion in Victorian Britain has since become a longstanding tradition that remains today. The simplicity of their mourning attire can similarly be portrayed in their length of mourning period. The accepted period for men was a lot shorter than women, to encourage immediate remarriage.

Much of the clothing purchased by women for mourning was quickly discarded after its use due to its bad luck the Victorians associated it with. Yet financial constraints for some meant that these clothes were later repurposed. This entry on the Australian Dress Register is a likely example with evidence of alterations that lowered the neckline and addition of lacework that would otherwise be inappropriate for mourning.

Front view of bodice and bolero jacket over-bodice in black cotton sateen
Front view of bodice and bolero jacket over-bodice in black cotton sateen. c1880-1900. Collection and image courtesy of Stanton Library.

For all its elaborate customs, the height of fashion for mourning attire quickly died out by the end of the First World War which saw the tradition as self-indulgent and inappropriate, leading funerary customs to become a much quieter affair.

By the 1920’s the colour black had evolved into Coco Chanel’s infamous ‘Little Black Dress’. Black drapery that once suggested a yearning for the deceased now promotes all the seduction and glamour the 21st century wearer desires to portray in this versatile colour.

Written by Eilysh Toose, Museum Studies intern


‘Australian Etiquette: A Facsimile’ (1885). Peoples Publishing Company.

Cunnington, Phillis & Lucas, Catherine (1972.) ‘Costume for Births, Marriages and Deaths’. A & C Black Ltd.

Douglas, Mrs. F (c.1890) ‘The Gentlewoman’s Book of Dress’. Publisher Unknown.

Harvey, John (1995) ‘Men in Black’. The University of Chicago Press.

Langner, Lawrence. (1959) ‘The Importance of Wearing Clothes’. Constable and Company Ltd.

Levitt, Sarah. (1986) ‘Victorians Unbuttoned’. Allen and Unwin Ltd.

Lurie, Alison (1981) ‘The Language of Clothes’ Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd.

Sherwood, Mrs. John. (1884). ‘Manners and Social Usages’. Publisher Unknown. New York

Taylor, Lou (2009) ‘Mourning Dress: A Costume and Social History’. Routledge.

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