Black and White and the Color of Mourning


Portrait of Mrs.C. (Lady with a White Shawl) by William Merritt Chase at PAFA Credit: Courtesy Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts


What do you wear to a funeral? The last time I attended a funeral I bought an inexpensive but lovely tailored dress, with a modest hemline, in a pale, pale cream color. Over it I wore a light weight navy blazer with a sash waist tie. For the occasion I employed a sort of mix and match of the tradition of wearing dark or somber colors and, although not a Quaker, a sympathy for their tradition of celebrating the life of the deceased by wearing white.

I personally love the idea of wearing white for mourning. It is a light, hopeful, calming color. For a sense of what I feel–there is a deeply tragic, deeply beautiful scene in the Wes Anderson film The Darjeeling Limited where the three main characters, brothers, are pulled out of their selfish preoccupations, while on a journey to India, to rescue three young boys from drowning. One of the boys dies. The American brothers are invited to attend the funeral. They join the rural village in white mourning attire and this most tragic of imaginable circumstances floats somehow in the margin between unbearable grief and the beauty of the universal.


Mary Queen of Scots (circa 1560) wore white, the French fashion in mourning. (Wikimedia Commons)
My interest in color and dying fabric was much piqued recently when I attended a lecture at the Textile Center by Michel Garcia, an amazing scholar and internationally recognized leader in the revival of ancient techniques of natural dyes. He talked about his historical research into the lost art of natural dyes and the economy and industry of dying fabric. For many centuries there were sumptuary laws in Europe that sought to regulate social and economic rank through market controls and edicts. Reacting against sumptuary laws often drove fashion!
Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth I in the film Elizabeth: The Golden Age, costume design by Alexandra Byrne
People were told which colors they could not wear. Prestige colors, reserved for wealthy people and nobility, were often dictated by the rarity of the dye materials and the difficulty of the dye process. The classic example is the reputation of purple as a royal color. It dates back to the rare purple dye that was obtained from seashells from Tyre (in modern day Lebanon). Back in the day, nine thousand shells were required to produce one gram of dye. In Roman times only the imperial classes could afford purple clothes. Tyrian purple was reserved for the monarchy in Elizabethan times and sumptuary laws forbid anyone but close relatives of the royal family to wear purple.
Inline image 3
Portrait of a Young Woman by Petrus Christus, circa 1470. Gemäldegalerie, Berlin (PD-US Wikimedia Commons)
Black also became a prestige color in Europe about 500 years ago, it is believed to have made its way north from the royal courts of Spain. Like purple, black fabric dye was expensive and complicated to produce. However once the New World was discovered by Europeans and logwood from Central and South America hit the market it became a popular ingredient in dye to produce a strong and lasting black. Black clothing increasingly became the mark of importance and wealth.
Inline image 4
Margaret of Spain, Empress of Austria, in Mourning for her father, 1666 (Wikimedia Commons)

Black also became the color for one’s best and most respectable clothing, reserved for special occasions such as death, a funeral, a period of mourning. This 1666 portrait of the Infanta Margarita of Spain seems like the stylebook for mourning dress for the next several hundred years throughout Europe. (A culture shock side note: Margarita herself died in 1673 at the age of 21 after after giving birth to her fourth child. She was married at age 16 to her maternal uncle and paternal cousin Austrian Leopold I, eleven years her senior.) Her dress is expensive but not ostentatious in its layers of black fabric, clearly not shiny satin or silk. Her cloak is a kind of veil, the hood pushed back to expose her unfocused gaze and mouth drooping with grief. She also bares her hands as she clutches a pair of gloves and a lace trimmed handkerchief for her tears. Her hair is simply braided and even her rings and bracelets are modestly black. In the background one can spy a child and servants also dressed in black.Such exemplary mourning is an occasion for a portrait, a rather glamorous one.


This style of mourning eventually spread throughout Europe reaching a mass marketed peak by the 19th century. The upper class ritual of dressing and posing in the throes of grief reached the middle classes of Europe as far north as Scandinavia. It overpowered the customs of the rural people who had complex, hyper-regional customs for mourning. (In Sweden, according to the parish style, one had several different hand spun, plant dyed and hand stitched aprons for occasions ranging from wedding to mourning.)

Inline image 5
This lady mourns fashionably in an enveloping black veil; The Widow by Swedish artist Anders Zorn (1860–1920) via Wikimedia Commons.
Inline image 6
The 99 percent, peasants in turn of the century Sweden, managed a veil of sorts by pulling a skirt over one’s head. (Torna Härad, Skåne)
Inline image 1
Mother and son in Penzance, Cornwall circa 1900 (©J. Steinmann, 2016)

I have been examining the old family photo above. We don’t know much about it. I do know that our ancestor grew up in Cornwall. She married a miner who traveled to South Africa for a job and returned to England injured and ill. He died at age 34 and left behind his young wife and only child. I feel sure that she had become a widow by the time of this photo, about 1900. It is probably a mourning photo, which was a thing–such portraits are now collectible.)

Inline image 2
Queen Victoria in 1900, still in black nearly 40 years after her husband’s death.
The photo of our Cornish ancestress recalls the Infanta Margarita of Spain. She is similarly pictured dressed in fashionable black, clutching gloves and looking fresh from weeping. Her child, rather than in the background, stands by her side. She is very proper and fashionable in her black sheepskin trimmed jacket and feathered bonnet with a weeping veil. She also brings to mind Queen Victoria who posed for many gloomy portraits in black.
What to wear to a funeral these days? It is not an easy choice as the rules now are few. With freedom to choose comes the responsibility to understand the sensibilities of the occasion and to respect diverse traditions. Sharing in traditions often builds a sense of togetherness at a time of grief. On the other hand, colors and clothing, whatever they are, are simply elements of a language used to express emotions we can all understand.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: