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Victoria in mourning

Sally Tuckett and Claudia Williams, look at one of the dresses that defined Queen Victoria’s look.
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SALLY: This is a very different look to what we just had.
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CLAUDIA ACOTT WILLIAMS: Yes. It is indeed, in colour and in scale. So obviously, we’re moving much further ahead in time now. And we’re looking at a dress from 1897, so right at the end of the queen’s life. And what’s interesting, really, is that, despite her sort of very lively and colourful clothing of her youth, it was actually possibly later in her life that she had the greatest impact on British fashions. As we know, her husband, Prince Albert, died very unexpectedly in 1861 of what we now know to possibly be Crohn’s disease. But the queen hadn’t expected his death, and over the course of about three weeks, he deteriorated really rapidly.
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And following on from the death of her mother just nine months earlier, these two events plunged her into a state of perpetual mourning from which she never really emerged.
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SALLY: And the mourning protocol was quite strict in the 19th century. It was very much you wore a certain type of garment– black, obviously– and the idea was that, as time went on, you would come out of that state of mourning. You’d maybe wear purple rather than black.
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CLAUDIA ACOTT WILLIAMS: Yes.
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SALLY: Does Queen Victoria ever do that?
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CLAUDIA ACOTT WILLIAMS: Well, no. And that’s the thing that’s sort of different about her. I think often people think that she maybe sort of created these very strict protocols around mourning. Actually, she didn’t. That kind of codification of mourning had existed for some time before. And she had adopted mourning dress after the deaths of various family members in a kind of normal way that was accepted by society during the 19th century. But the extent of her grief after the death of her husband meant that actually she never came out of this state of mourning. So for the remaining 40 years of her life, she would dress in black. And like you say, there are sort of stages of mourning.
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And it was these stages which determined the amount of black or the type of fabrics that you could wear. And she sort of stayed within this first stage of mourning, which was full mourning, essentially. But there was a state of half mourning that would come, for a widow, usually the general convention was about 2 and 1/2 years. And at that point, you could go into half mourning, where you could wear sort of purples, grays, whites, a little bit of gold or silver. But she never actually made it to that stage. And so she wears deep black for the rest of her life.
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SALLY: And what types of fabrics were appropriate for full mourning?
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CLAUDIA ACOTT WILLIAMS: Well, the concept was that there should be no sort of gleam or shine given off by your clothes. So your buttons would be covered, even. So it was meant to be fabrics initially, in that very early stage, that didn’t have any kind of sheen to them. So crepe was the main feature of mourning. And we can see that here on the dress. And that was combined with bombazine, which was a kind of dull fabric which didn’t have any shine. So that was for the first year and a day you were supposed to wear that. And her dress in the ’60s is exactly– it follows that convention.
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So we’ve got these black dresses that are entirely covered in crepe. No white at all. And the only exception to that was the tulle widow’s cap, which her youngest daughter Beatrice called her sad cap, which she would wear all the time. So that was the only sort of concession to colour. And then as you moved through those phases, you could have slightly less of the crepe. And you start to see the introduction of a bit more embellishment. So it doesn’t have to be so simple, so pared back. And during the Victorian era, we see mourning convention sort of incorporate fashions, as well.
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So maybe not so much for the queen, because this is sort of moving into her elder years, and she’s less concerned, really, with keeping up with fashionable silhouettes, but certainly sort of more widely. It would just be a case of transferring contemporary cuts and fits into the appropriate fabrics and colours.
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SALLY: And as time progresses, there can be more embellishment. And I think what’s fascinating about this garment is the contrast in the fabrics you’ve got in the skirts. It still seems– it’s very ornate. It’s still obviously very high status.
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CLAUDIA ACOTT WILLIAMS: Yes.
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SALLY: And an expensive garment. And then in the bodice, the crepe with the frills on the arms, it’s just– it’s all very delicately done.
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CLAUDIA ACOTT WILLIAMS: Yes.
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SALLY: And it’s still actually quite showy.
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CLAUDIA ACOTT WILLIAMS: Yes, exactly. And I think that’s the misconception. Lots of people think that she sort of abandoned any care for or interest in dress. And I think, in that first decade after Albert’s death, when she comes out of the public eye completely, that’s probably the case. Her clothing was very simple at that time. And interestingly, we see spending on dress almost halve in that decade after Albert’s death. But as we move into the late 1860s and into the 1870s, and she sort of comes back into the public eye– or she is forced back into the public eye, really– spending goes up. And correspondingly, so does the kind of detail and embellishment in her clothes.
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So we can see in the bodice here the main ways in which there was sort of interest and variation put into the dress was through the shape of the neckline, the cut of the sleeves, and the different embellishments.
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SALLY: And the petticoat that we just saw, that was from 1837. So this is 60 years later.
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CLAUDIA ACOTT WILLIAMS: That’s right.
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SALLY: So she’s coming to the end of her life, and her stature and her physique has changed significantly from that petticoat.
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CLAUDIA ACOTT WILLIAMS: Yes.
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SALLY: And this is something that people are quite fascinated with.
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CLAUDIA ACOTT WILLIAMS: Yeah, well just the volume of fabric, I guess, that was involved. I mean, I’m always very defensive of her. She did have nine children. And she chose throughout the later part of her life, in particular, not to be sort of trussed up in corsets and stays. And she’s got quite a distinctive style, which she feels confident to just be herself in. And there are sort of interesting elements of the bodice which are very unique to Victoria’s clothing. You’ve got two little pockets either side. This one on the left-hand side here would have been used to hold a pocket watch.
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And on the right-hand side, it would have been used to hold possibly a pair of glasses or some keys. So again, it’s about sort of comfort, ease of use, and not feeling sort of tied by fashionable conventions.
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SALLY: Presumably, because this is a dress from the 1890s, there would have been some sort of bustle at the back, which would explain the huge mass of material we’ve got down at the bottom, because this gives the impression that Victoria was quite tall and statuesque.
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CLAUDIA ACOTT WILLIAMS: Yes. Yes, it’s quite misleading as it’s laid out now. What we can see here is the length of the train. But like you say, Victoria was actually very diminutive in stature. And so we can see here the front of the skirt, which sort of gives a sense of just how small she was. She was 4’ 11” for most of her life, but we actually know from her dress that she shrunk by a couple of inches. And so it’s very interesting the way in which dress not only sort of allows us to get an idea of someone’s personality, but to quite carefully monitor their body changes.
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SALLY: She’s the first monarch in this series where we’ve been able to see a progression in the clothing. And I think it’s fabulous that we can do that. So thank you so much for showing these outfits to us.
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CLAUDIA ACOTT WILLIAMS: It’s a pleasure. Thank you.

Following on from Step 4.13 where we glimpsed into Victoria’s style as a young woman, in this video Sally and Claudia Williams, curator at Historic Royal Palaces, look at one of the dresses that defined Victoria’s look.

After the death of her beloved husband Albert in 1861, Victoria went into a period of deep mourning in which she wore clothes like these. Claudia shows us the crepe fabric that was used to ensure no liveliness, not even shine, was visible in the clothes of a person in mourning.

We also see glimpses of Victoria’s personality through her clothing including pockets she had made for a watch and glasses so she could carry out her royal duties.

  • Mourning clothing was used by the Victorians as a rite of passage, to show that someone close to you had died. How do we demonstrate rites of passage through our clothing today?
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A History of Royal Fashion

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