Mourning is what she wears.

At the Glamour Magazine Women of the Year awards, “Tracee Ellis Ross admitted that she had trouble deciding what to wear… (“Do I wear black because I’m in mourning? Do I go to a costume shop and get armor?”) In the end, she went with something that reflected how vulnerable she feels this week: a nightie. “As you can tell, my 44-year-old breasts need some support, so thank God I am here with you,” she joked. But even though she’s feeling vulnerable, Ross said now more than ever it’s important for all people to come together, no matter their political differences. “We must continue dancing together, even if that means showing the world that sometimes I need alcohol to find my inner rhythm,” she explained.”        (from Cady Drell,


First option first: Mourning.


Metropolitan Museum of Art, Costume Collection, Mourning Dress ca. 1850

The mourning dress in the Met’s collection is from smack-dab in the middle of the 19th century, and is fabulous in its embodiment of a style of mourning specific to the upper middle classes of the time period. You really do get to have it both ways: signal one’s status as a widow and wear something so daring, so non-traditional. This dress is extraordinarily fashionable — in any color but black, it would have been seen as aggressively cutting-edge; in the guise of a mourning dress it appears demure. To me it celebrates the shape of the body beneath it: the sleeves, for example, make of the arms something grand. These sleeves are set very tight and low on the arms (most women today would find the constriction of movement impossible to tolerate). The very tight-fitting fabric ends about three inches down the curve of the shoulder, and a separate sleeve is inset. That’s the part you see that billows and drapes down the rest of the arm. Not only are those ends flared, deeply and daringly, they are edged with ruffles, in case you didn’t get the point. The lovely sheer stripes running horizontally across the expanse of skirt, the luxurious draping that those stripes accentuate, and then, to crown it all, a veritable tiara of a stand-up collar, echoing the men’s collar or even a clerical collar.


Another mourning dress, from the Museum of Funeral Customs in Springfield, Illinois, dating from 1867 – 1869. That framed wreath in the background is made of hair wrapped around fine wires and bent into flower shapes.

These two 19th-century mourning dresses share one interesting detail in common: they have vaguely military-costume details. The first dress uses the horizontal shadow striping of the fabric to render the bodice into a subtle military jacket effect, as seen in these cheap modern reproduction jackets.

Image of dress enhanced: cropped and lightened to show effect of striping in fabric.

Likewise, our second dress from about fifteen years later echoes dozens of military dress jacket styles, but perhaps is influenced by the highly romanticized (and very popular) images of 19th-century Highlands soldiers. The fringe (likely a modern replacement, but also probably true to the original) swishing down the dart lines of the bodice and the lower hip curves, and the wrists, add a certain dash to a somber garment.

It makes sense the 19th century mourning dresses would include soldier-like details borrowed from male dress. Not only was such borrowing popular in fashion but the psychology of it makes so much sense: a woman needed protection — the black garments helped, and the ritualized etiquette of the prolonged mourning period structured the ways a widow could interact with others. The military details were just another part of the armor cloaking the widow for her work in the world.

To have a husband die was devastating, emotionally and financially, but it was curiously freeing. Widows inhabited an otherwise forbidden borderland in American life — their husband’s passing out of society’s reach shifted the widow into a new state of being. Widows were adult women, as sexual, emotional, and feeling as they were prior to the husband’s death, but now no longer tethered to a man’s presence. They were financially independent; they were freed to own property, exercise ownership rights, and to move about socially without a husband’s presence. For many women, this less-defined way of existing was agonizing, brutal, exposed, and lonely. For others, while lonely it was exhilarating.

This social context helps explain the elaborate rituals of mourning in the 19th century. Wearing black (whether a widow, widower, child, or near-relative) signaled to others one’s supposed emotional state, and in the case of the widow, the shift from being-married to not-being-married. Black mourning dress was protective, defensive garb, meant to prompt others towards a proper kind of interaction — importuning a widow would be difficult to do unless deliberately intended and if so, then was the height of rudeness.

So the dress: Tracee Ellis Ross asked, what should I wear? Mourning?  Her intent there was to signal to her onlookers her emotional state. Mourning seems reflexive, a kind of curling in. Ellis Ross chose a nightie, and if you compare the two images you can see that her selection was the inverse of the 1850s dress. From black to shining white, from coverage to revealing, from changing the parameters of the body with full skirt, tight waist, and flared sleeves to a clinging silk that takes its shape from the body beneath. The opposite of mourning, the inverse of allowing one’s clothing to armor one against mis-interpretation or pity.

Personally, I would have chosen the same kind of cloaking that 19th century mourning dresses offered women of that time. Today’s modern mourner might consider a dress that provides that same physical level of shelter, the effacing black expanse of fabric, and throw in a contemporary symbol of resurrection. This 1970s maxi dress, offered by Etsy Seller TheHoney Witch, is a fascinating piece of clothing.That high collar rising up the neck, the stretchy polyester knit, the simple elasticized waistline, the modest darting from the waist up towards the breasts offer a kind of shelter.

And as the seller notes,  astonishingly those stones that make up the butterfly are real glass, not plastic; are original to the dress; and are all accounted for.

A modern mourner could do no better than wear such a testimony to the persistence of physical objects in the face of time passing.






2 thoughts on “Mourning is what she wears.

  1. I love the nightgown as mourning. It does convey a perfect vulnerability; a fragility of spirit yet a strength of body. Would I wear it off stage as mourning? Probably not, I agree with you there.

    Fascinating essay and blog, thank you for writing!

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