Friday, January 29, 2016

The Victorian Little Black Dress: Mourning or Not?

A quick eBay search for Victorian photographs turns up the fact that most Victorian dresses look black or gray. Of course, that may be because Victorian photography was only in black and white! (Ya think?) However, a common misconception (furthered by eBay sellers) is that any lady with a dress that looks black MUST be in mourning.


Victorians were a lot like us in their color choices. They liked a variety. But they also liked their basic black dress.

Black silks, black wools, black velvets, and gauzy black sheers are very common for the middle 1800s. Black was appropriate for many occasions, from morning to evening. And it was a useful color - any colored dress that had been spotted or faded could always be dyed black and used again!

Black for Mourning

Of course, black was an appropriate color for mourning attire. If a widow or a mother who lost her child could afford to do so, she would often wear an entire outfit of black. However, middle class or poor ladies often had to make do with what they had. Thus they might dye a dress black and wear whatever somber accessories they had with it during the period of mourning. Fashion magazines of the mid-1800s are full of suggestions for clothing and accessories for mourning.

An example of what a wealthy family might do is found in a fictional story in Godeys Lady's Book, 1863. In the story, a family in mourning for a fallen son/brother decided that all three of the ladies needed new black dresses. Mrs. Murray and her two daughters are “well to do in the world.” So they have the village dressmaker make them each three new dresses for mourning - a black bombazine, alpaca and calico.

Black for Non-Mourning

But in addition to mourning, black was a highly versatile color for so much more! Rather than tell you what black dresses were used for, I decided it would be fun to show you instead. So here are some original pictures and descriptions of ladies' clothing that was black and not necessarily for mourning.

This "Dinner Dress" is from Godeys Lady's Book, 1862. The description reads: "Made of black poplin, trimmed with flutings of purple silk and black velvet ribbon. Black and purple belt, fastened with a clasp. Linen collar and cuffs." 


Black dresses were definitely suitable for older ladies, as this quote from Godeys Lady's Book implies: "This was Virginia’s first impression of her hostess. At a glimpse she saw the silvery hair which sheds a pleasant radiance over the face, like moonlight; the soft lace about the throat, in which the head seems to nestle lovingly, like a dove’s in its snowy plumage. Of course she wore a black silk dress and a small black shawl over her shoulders; such a costume belongs to a woman of her age as much as white to a bride." 


Home-dress of black alpaca. The corsage and skirt are in one, and the trimming consists of cuir-colored velvet buttons, and bands of cuir-colored velvet. Godeys Lady's Book, 1863.


Young ladies wore black too, as this story about a young minister and his wife indicates. "'I must learn to economize more. There’s the cyclopaedia I had promised myself for this year; I must do without it.'

'And I the new black silk I thought of having in the spring,' said Mrs. Trueberry.

'No, Carolina, you need the dress,' replied her husband.

'Not till we are out debt, my dear,' she said gently, but firmly; 'and that will be when you get your quarter’s salary in April. I can turn and make over that blue cashmere I have, and it will do with my others.'"


"Look at the Time" by Gustave-Leonard de Jonghe
This is obviously a fashionable lady about to go out. She's clearly not in mourning because her bonnet is yellow and she has a bright multi-colored shawl. This is a daytime dress, as it appears to be either mid-morning or mid-afternoon, based on the clock.


Portrait of Maria Sawiczewska,
Leopold Loeffler, 1861
This lady is in formal evening dress suitable for a ball, dinner or other "after five" event. Again, this is unlikely to be a mourning outfit since she is wearing gorgeous coral jewelry with it.


The Governess, by Emily Mary Osborn, 1860
As a contrast to the wealthy ladies above, this is a low-income lady. The poor, downtrodden governess is clearly being berated by the indulgent mother. Her depressing plight is accented by her daytime working dress - likely either black wool or silk with lovely sheer sleeves.


Afternoon Tea 1865 George Dunlop Leslie
And just as another contrast, this time it's the employer who is wearing a black dress while her maid wears gray. White collar and cuffs indicate that she is likely not in mourning.


Black dresses were so ubiquitous that Godeys even included suggestions on how to reuse them when they were worn-out. "Two mothers had each a good black satin dress; in the course of time they became, as unfortunately all dresses will, too shabby or two old-fashioned for their wearers’ use. One mother picked hers to pieces, washed and ironed it, and made from it two handsome-looking mantles for her daughters. The other adapted hers for a petticoat, and spent five-and-twenty shillings in the purchase of new mantles for her two daughters. The mantles made of this old material were far the best-looking, and most serviceable. Now, five shillings would have bought a petticoat; and thus the saving of twenty shillings might have been made for the pocket of the husband."


A final fashion magazine image - this one of a striking black ensemble trimmed with red! Le Follet, October 1861.


And just for fun, I'll throw in an entertaining description I found in an 1863 fictional story. Even "Deacon Moody's" wife had a black dress!

Deacon Moody was a little glum man, and looked as if he was asleep half the time; but if ever you see anybody wide awake it was his wife. Her eyes was big, and round, and black, and she would look at your over her specs for ever so long without winkin’. She was so fat and round that she looked for all the world jest like a great bolster tied in the middle. She had on a black bombazine frock, a checked apron, a black silk neck hankercher on her neck, and a great red knittin’ sheath, shaped like a heart pinned on her side. She sot in the big rockin’-chair, and rocked, and knit, and talked all the afternoon. 

So if you are a living historian, you can wear a black dress for many occasions - not just for mourning! And next time you're looking at old pictures of Great-Grandma, wondering if the black dress meant she was in mourning - it might have just been her favorite "little black dress!"


If you have a Victorian little black dress, my mom and I have some lovely accessories in our shops! Check out headpieces and jewelry at Southern Serendipity and rosette belts and cockades at Creative Cockades. 


  1. Hi Heather! My name is Kira, and I am writing from Helsinki, Finland. I have a hobby of making doll boxes, upcycling old, discarded dolls. One day after watching "Gone with the wind" one more time :) I came up with an idea of creating a Civil war style doll. And here I come to the point.. :) While surfing the net and searching for the information on the period, I came across your wonderful website which has been the most helpful and intersting. Even if my doll might not be totally period correct :), you have inspired me greatly. I would love to share a picture of how it turned out, but I don't see the way to do it on this website.
    Here is the link to my handicraft blog, where I have uploaded the pictures of the doll.

    It is in Russian, but you can check out the pictures if you are interested.

    Thank you very much again!

    Good luck with all your works and happy reenacting!

    Warmest regards,


    1. Kira, your doll looks lovely! Thank you for sharing the link! I'm so glad my blog was helpful. :)