We have moved! You should be redirected to thelicentiate.com in a few seconds. This blog will not be updated. Click here if you are not redirected

Monday, May 24, 2010


So last month, two things happened. Someone in my family died and I bought a book. These two things might not seem connected now, but it will make sense soon, I promise.

The book was 'Isms... Understanding Fashion ' by Mairi MacKenzie. It's a pocket-sized book with two-page spreads explaining every major fashion wave from the sixteenth century to present day. From Baroque to blogging, it's all there in concise, clipped paragraphs. Precursors, related trends, even lists of where you can see costume archives of a particular trend are organised according to country at the end of every list.

But I'm jumping ahead. A month ago my grandmother passed and I found myself in my hometown with a duffel bag full of glittery dresses, army boots and coloured tights that I must have packed in a peyote trance. The crumpled clothes in the bag look like something a Care Bear would puke up after overindulging in too much sunshine and rainbows.   I went into town to try to look for something appropriate. I picked the first black dress I saw and went home. I didn't want to make a statement, I didn't  want anyone to admire my taste, I didn't want anyone to look at me.

So, for the last month or so I haven't really cared about anything fashion-y. Last week I bought a dress for my sister's 21st birthday party to find that I was no longer a small size 10 (6 to you US readers) and that I couldn't fit into my pre-picked party dress. That was what snapped me out of it. Until then I was wandering around feeling a bit sad, looking very sloppy and totally unsure of what to do.

There are dress guides for weddings, for dates, for job interviews. But no-one seems to set out a dress code for funerals anymore. It would be so much easier if all the hard stuff was done for us. All the worrying about whether you look respectful and proper (probably the only occasion that worries me in that way).  Mourning is so hard that worrying over a trivial thing like what to wear while doing so makes it all the harder. And if only there was a way of letting people know before they bound up to you in the street and breeze 'How are you, any news?', with the inevitable awkward, 'Well, my Nan died there last week'. And then the terrible silence...

L-R Plate of a child's mourning dress from an Ackermann's catalogue c. 1809,  Middle class family in mourning dress, 1913 (analysis here ), Queen Mary in Mourning Dress, 1913.  Jordan take note - homegirl liked her bling.

This is where I tie in with 'Isms..'. One of the fashion movements the book covers is called Ritualism - the strictly regimented system of mourning during the Victorian era. Women had to jump through a seemingly never-ending set of hoops to show that they were mourning properly and not to do so was a source of public shame. Books and women's magazines pored through the subject much in the manner of Trinny and Susannah, with less emphasis on Spanx and droopy boobs. One of the American books I found, The Art of Dressing Well (1870) is viewable in full online and is full of bon mots concerning heavy mourning, half mourning and non-fat, sorry, 'light' mourning.

Think of it like a school uniform - universally hated, but still useful in deflecting the dilemma of what to wear in what could be an emotionally fraught situation.  I don't think that we should go back to the days of mourning for women at the threat of losing their social respectability by any means (because that means so much in this day and age...).

I suppose it would just be nice to not have to tell people that you're mourning, not to feel like a shallow idiot when you can't decide what to wear, to have something to make you look ok and like you're holding it together for the first couple of weeks when all you really want to do is wear pajamas all day and watch The Jeremy Kyle Show.