The word comes from an old English word wead, which means garment, but the tradition of wearing mourning clothes is much older.
It dates all the way back to ancient Rome, and modern mourning derived from their belief that a disguise would hide the living from the evil spirits of the dead.
During periods of mourning, the Romans would wear a toga pulla, or one made of dark wool.
Throughout the Middle Ages, and even today in some European and South American countries, widows wear mourning clothes for the rest of their lives.
For most of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, a widow in mourning was part of the social norm. A widow not wearing mourning for at least two years was considered classless, tasteless, and not respectful of the dead.
And heaven forbid she go to a party!
Mourning was costly; a new set of clothes was required, or the old ones had to be dyed black. It often put a financial strain on large families.
There was even special jewelry, generally made of onyx, all black, and sometimes made from or adorned with the hair of the dead.
When brushes were cleaned, the hair was pulled from the bristles of the brush and placed in a special container called a hair receiver.
The hair was then removed, and bracelets, necklaces, rings, and brooches were fashioned.
In Gone With The Wind, more than a little time is spent on mourning and mourning clothes. The scene at the bazaar where Scarlett and Melanie give their wedding rings to “the cause”, both ladies can be seen wearing black from head to toe.
Scarlett, the widow, and Melanie, the sister of Scarlett’s deceased husband were classic examples of mid 19th Century mourning dress.
The scene in the movie is different from the one in the book. In the movie, Melanie thinks first to give UP her wedding band, and Scarlett frivolously pulls hers off with a, “…here, take mine too…”. In the book, it was Scarlett’s idea, and Melanie was so greatly moved she parted with hers as well.
And in the book, Rhett didn’t get Scarlett’s ring back.
He knew the mourning was fake.
Most mourning is not.
Even though the little black dress is still considered “proper” etiquette for funerals and widows, black isn’t the only mourning color.
The royal women of Europe opted for white for mourning, especially in Spain. The tradition lasted until the 1500s, and was actually revived by Spanish born Queen Fabiola of Belgium. And, as late as 2004, the four daughters of The Netherlands Queen Juliana wore white to her funeral.
In today’s world, at least the Western World, most women do not wear mourning past the funeral.
But, back in the day, young widows were expected to show respect for their deceased husbands by wearing black for at least four years. After that, they could go into half mourning, and wear some grey and lavender.
There were other rules as well. If a brother or sister died, and it happened often, the remaining siblings wore black for six months!
Servants wore black arm bands.
Social events were out of the question, hence the GWTW scandal of Melly and Scarlett attending the bazaar.
England’s Queen Victoria was the epitome of mourning. She never stopped grieving for Prince Albert, had his razor and clothes laid out for him every morning of her life after he died, and wore nothing but black.
Times have changed, things have relaxed, and most people have little time for extended periods of mourning. Black at funerals seems to be enough, new expensive wardrobes are considered a waste of money, and people have realized that moving on, rather than reminding oneself every time one looks in the mirror that the one they loved is gone, is generally the best way to recover from such a loss.
Periods of mourning in the modern world are shorter.
Grief, on the other hand, can be near eternal.