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?
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 and Gray – Colors 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 Colors Around the World
We can learn much from looking at the funeral clothing and mourning traditions of other cultures. We could potentially 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 traveling, or reading and learning about other cultures.
White as a Color of Mourning
White has long played a role in the history of mourning. White has been representative of purity through many centuries and in many parts of the world. The presence of youth at a funeral, whether as the deceased, a mourner, or in a participatory capacity, is often distinguished by white as a symbol of innocence and purity. The attire of women as well, while commonly dominated by black in mourning, often has been accompanied by white accouterments such as hats, accessories, or the trim of a mourning dress.
- The funeral for King Leo V of Armenia featured a procession clad entirely in white. The funeral was held in 1393 in Paris, France, where King Leo V died in exile.
- In 1962, Wilhelmina, who had abdicated the throne of the Netherlands in 1948, was given a white funeral in respect for her spiritual belief that earthly death was the beginning of eternal life. This has become a tradition with the Dutch royal family, exemplified in 2004 when Queen Juliana’s daughters all wore white to her funeral.
- Queen Fabiola wore white in 1993 at the funeral of her husband, King Baudouin I of Belgium.
- White is the color of mourning in Hindu culture as a representation of purity.
Other Colors of Mourning:
In our search for the use and symbolism of colors of mourning, black and white found common threads across cultures. Additionally, yellow has long been a color of mourning in Egypt as it is associated with both the sun and the gold used with so many mummies and sarcophagi. Red is a common funeral color in Ghana among native cultures. The Catholic Church has introduced the use of purple in mourning in many countries influenced by the religion.
Do you have further questions about funeral planning or mourning etiquette? View our funeral and estate planning section of our blog.