What are Widow's Weeds?

While no longer in fashion, this clothing style still influences funerals today

After the assassination of her husband, President Abraham Lincoln, in 1865, Mary Todd Lincoln wore widow's weeds -- somber, black mourning clothing.. Photo © Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Question: What are "widow's weeds" and what is their origin?

Answer: The term "widow's weeds" refers to the black clothing worn (principally) by widows during the Victorian era, which dictated a strict "etiquette of mourning" that governed both their behavior and their appearance following the deaths of their husbands.

Widow's weeds consist of a heavy, black dress that conceals the female figure, as well as a black "weeping veil" worn over the head and face when venturing outdoors.

Indoors, women would wear a "widow's cap." These items were typically made from or decorated with crepe, a dull (non-reflective) fabric made from silk.

Widow's weeds are primarily associated with the Victorian era, which is defined by the reign of England's Queen Victoria, 1837 to 1901. Viewed publicly as the standard of strict personal behavior and morality, Queen Victoria significantly influenced the attitudes and social mores of not only her subjects within the United Kingdom but also people around the world. After the death of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861, she secluded herself and entered a lengthy period of mourning. From this moment until her death 40 years later, the queen wore mourning clothing: dark, somber outfits intended to show respect for the deceased.

During the queen's reign, the stage of "first," "full" or "deep" mourning in Victorian England dictated that a woman should wear widow's weeds.

This period might last for more than a year after the death of a loved one. If a widow left her house, even her accessories, such as her shoes, an umbrella, a handbag, etc., were ideally black and dull in appearance. During the period of first mourning following the death of her husband, Queen Victoria wore jewelry made from "jet," a form of fossilized carbon that is similar to obsidian and black tourmaline, all of which resemble black glass.

(Incidentally, this is where the modern term "jet-black" comes from.)

While the strictures governing behavior and dress following a death gradually loosened after the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, her influence persists today. Most of us still think that we should wear dark or somber clothing to a funeral or memorial service (even though that concept is gradually dying out, too).

By the way, if the word "weeds" seems odd, understand that the term derives from the Old English word for "robe, dress, apparel, garment or clothing." That word derives etymologically from the earlier Proto-Indo-European word wedh, which meant "to weave," which relates to fabrics.

Additional Reading:
Superstitions About Funeral Clothing

"Fashion History: Victorian Mourning Garb," by Kyshah Hell. Morbid Outlook. Retrieved August 26, 2014. http://www.morbidoutlook.com/fashion/historical/2001_03_victorianmourn.html

"Funeral and mourning clothing," by Alison Petch. England: The Other Within. Retrieved August 26, 2014.


"weeds (n.)." Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved August 26, 2014. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=weeds&allowed_in_frame=0

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