The rigid rules of mourning dress were made to protect the privacy of the family, primarily the women, during their time of grief. As the man of the house could not afford to retire from society and his business concerns, a simple black crape armband on sleeve or hat was a satisfactory outward sign of a death in the family.
The required year and one day for a widow’s “weeds” of dull black crape (or “crepe”) began as a fashion in the aristocracy which trickled down over the nineteenth century to the poorest levels of society. Those who could not afford mourning would dye dresses black and go into debt to give the deceased a proper funeral. The funeral supply industry reached its zenith in the mid-nineteenth century. With the death of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria’s heavy grief, the code of ritual became even more pronounced and would continue to be observed in most part until WWI.
A widow could, after a year and a day, go into “half mourning” and wear a touch of white or gray, some jewelry and black fabric with a sheen. Jet, vulcanite, bog oak, gutta percha, onyx, and other black stones were considered appropriate, sometimes relieved by small seed pearls, which symbolized fallen tears. The town of Whitby, North Yorkshire was the center of the true jet industry and still produces the lightweight inky black petrified wood jewelry. Eventually, the widow might progress to lavender, and finally into colors after two years. Young children were often put into white, or white trimmed out in black or gray with even their dolls put into mourning.