The wearing of black clothing has been a long-accepted funeral tradition intended to show respect for the deceased. Wearing other colors is in fact seen as a major social faux pas, or an out and out slap in the face to mourning family members, regardless of how subdued or otherwise formal the offending clothing is.
By the late 19th century, black clothing had become so associated with the act or process of mourning that any woman who dared wear black when not in mourning was looked down upon and seen as “dangerously eccentric.”
So where did this association come from? What was its original purpose? Why has it been so persistent? Do other cultures allow mourners or funeral-goers more leeway when it comes to the color of mourning dress?
The colors of mourning in the West
The easy answer to the first of these questions is to say that we wear black because that’s just the way it’s always been – and for all intents and purposes, for most of us that’s true. The tradition of black mourning clothing in the West dates back to the Roman Empire, when the family of the deceased would wear a dark-colored toga, called a toga pulla. This tradition persisted in England throughout medieval times, when women were expected to wear black caps and veils when their husbands passed away.
In much of continental Europe however, widows in the deepest mourning period wore white, a tradition that held on in Spain through most of the 1500s. French queens prior to the Revolution also wore white while in mourning.
Purple is the color of “half mourning”
Flash forward to England during the Victorian era, where women were expected to dress in mourning for up to four years. However, once she entered what was known as “half mourning” – a year after being widowed – the bereaved could incorporate purple or gray into her wardrobe.
Prior to this era, formal mourning was largely reserved to the upper classes. But with the birth of the middle class during the industrial revolution, the practice grew and spread throughout the society.
Because funeral customs in the US tend to closely mimic those of the UK, the tradition of black mourning attire crossed the Atlantic, and by the late 1800s had become so firmly entrenched in our own culture that department stores like Lord & Taylor had entire mourning departments to meet this demand.
Today, while these traditions have persisted in the US and Western Europe, other cultures and non-western religions naturally maintain their own rich traditions, many of which incorporate a wide variety of other mourning colors.
Mourning attire around the world
While the continent of Africa is home to a mind-boggling array of diverse countries and cultures, one commonality is that for many of them, the traditional mourning color is white.
One interesting exception is South Africa, where red is the traditional color of mourning, as it is in Ghana and a few other West African nations.
Asian cultures allow a variety of colors in funeral clothing
White is also the traditional color of mourning in India and China. In India, it is a Hindu tradition that white is the color of purity, and so is appropriate for funeral or mourning.
However; if a Chinese funeral honors someone who is older than 80, red is acceptable.
Actually Asia is home to vast and varied funeral clothing traditions. Several cultures allow the wearing of indigo clothing, while in Thailand mourners are permitted to wear purple. In Myanmar (formerly Burma), yellow is acceptable.
Iranian culture has allowed mourners to attend funerals in blue as far back as the 11th century, and some ancient texts indicate that purple robes were also acceptable.
We can learn much from looking at the funeral clothing and mourning traditions of other cultures.
We could potentially even even incorporate some of these beautiful customs into our own funeral celebrations. This would be especially appropriate to celebrate the beautiful life of a loved one who enjoyed travelling, or reading and learning about other cultures.
Do you have further questions about funeral planning or mourning etiquette? View our funeral and estate planning section of our blog.