European Fashion Heritage Association

Journal EFHA World

Wedding or Mourning Dress?

1800s1900sEuropean fashionfashion heritage in context

When Johanna Frederika Maria de Greve married in 1879, she wore not a white but a black gown – and that’s not the only thing that makes this dress so special.

A guest post by Astrid De Tender

On 23 December 1879, Johanna Frederika Maria de Greve (1852-1903) married the notary and city councillor Henri François Wouter Dubois (1844-1932) in Wijk bij Duurstede, approximately 20km southeast of Utrecht. She wore a black dress.

The ensemble, complete with gloves and a wedding wreath, was donated to the Centraal Museum in 1972 by the grandmother of Natalie Dubois, the museum’s current curator of applied arts. Thanks to her information, we have been able to document the story behind the dress. We know who wore it and why it is black.

The black silk two-piece ensemble comprises a skirt and a jacket that is beautifully draped over the skirt so that it resembles a dress. It is dated circa 1879, a transitional period in fashion. The high- necked jacket and long, close-fitting sleeves are in keeping with the style of the period 1870-78, as is the ruching and smocking that decorate the skirt in layers. The length of the fitted jacket is innovative, as is the bustle: the construction that creates volume at the back of the skirt. The so- called ‘second bustle’ style, which appeared at the end of the 1870s, is tighter than the draped volumes of the bustles that were fashionable in the early 1870s. The skirt’s shorter length is also new: both the front of the skirt and the train at the back barely touch the floor. This new fashion was a first step towards greater freedom of movement for women.

The jacket and the uppermost, draped layer of the skirt are finished with black lace and beaded trim. The white lace trim at the jacket’s neck and cuffs provides a contrast to the black ensemble, as do the white gloves with fine black buttons and the white wreath that is tied with two black ribbons.

The oldest Utrecht label

The dress is not only exceptional because we know so much about its origin, but also because of the label that is sewn inside it. The label is significant because of the historical information it provides, but it also tells us something about a larger trend within fashion history. The emergence of the label is comparable with the emergence of the signature in painting: before 1870 most clothing was made by anonymous tailors. Due to an ever-increasing self-awareness, people began to value their talents more. Makers who previously regarded themselves as tailors increasingly saw themselves as visionaries or artists, giving rise to the profession of the couturier.

The label in the black dress is the oldest label from a Utrecht-based fashion house. The oldest label in the Centraal Museum’s collection is in a beautiful dress from 1877 by Madame Veuve Divoire- Bawin, a couturière with workshops in Ostend and Brussels who made dresses for Queen Emma’s ladies-in-waiting. Her dress in the collection features the first bustle with a train. A dress from 1886 in the collection by Charles Frederick Worth, often regarded as the first couturier, has the third oldest label.

Printed on the waistband inside the jacket of the black wedding ensemble are the words ‘Mme. J. (De) Terlinge(n) – Utrecht’. When worn, the waistbands were fastened to keep the jacket firmly in place. The label tells us that around 1879 there was a studio in Utrecht for ‘Robes and Costumes’, run by Mrs J. (De) Terlinge(n), about whom, unfortunately, little more is known.

Brides and Widows, White and Black

The most remarkable thing about the dress is its black colour. Today, white is the colour of choice for wedding dresses, a phenomenon that began around 1820. At that time, cream was a popular choice because it complemented the pale skin that was so fashionable in Northern Europe. It is unusual for a bride to wear black today, but that wasn’t always the case. In addition to Johanna de Greve’s black dress, many black and other coloured wedding dresses can be found on the online platform Modemuze. But why choose a black gown when white wedding dresses had been gaining popularity since 1820? Generally speaking, a coloured dress was simply more economical, as it could also be worn after the wedding. But this economic reason does not apply in this case. This black dress is, in fact, a wedding and mourning outfit in one. We still associate black with death and mourning to this day. This is based on a long tradition in fashion history, of which Johanna’s wedding (or should we say mourning?) dress is a good example. She married in black because her father had recently died.

For a long time, black clothing was the convention for communicating the loss of a loved one, especially for bereaved women and, in particular, widows. For men, it was sufficient to wear a black armband, a black watch chain or dull buttons. The rules on mourning for women were so strict that they were even laid down in books, such as Louis Mercier’s Le Deuil (Mourning, 1877). The length of mourning differed depending on whether the deceased was a parent, child, spouse, or sibling, and the regulations dictated, among other things, which fabrics, colours and items of jewellery were permitted. The prescriptions on dress were especially strictly adhered to in Christian society and even affected bridal attire.

Black, Blacker, Blackest

In the 19th century, black was not only worn during mourning but was also considered a very fashionable colour. Black was seen as timeless and dignified, characteristics that also applied to mourning clothes and fitted within Christian morality. Black clothing distanced the wearer from the frivolities of everyday life, but black was also the perfect base for a multitude of jewels. Black clothing also created the opportunity to focus strongly on form or to play with a variety of fabrics and textures. This focus on form and materials was a central feature of the recent Cristobàl Balenciaga exhibition at the Kunstmuseum Den Haag, in which black played the leading role.

Before 1850, in the Netherlands, Spain and other European countries, black was restricted to the wealthiest members of society because of the costliness of black dyes. Creating black fabrics entailed a delicate and labour-intensive process, which was the result of endless experimentation. For centuries, dyers had searched for the ‘blackest black’, of which the so-called ‘Noir de Flandres’ was a fanatical attempt. To achieve this deep black, aggressive iron compounds were added, which damaged the fibres. Most black garments and textiles slowly degenerated or faded to a brown tint. It is therefore quite exceptional that Mrs De Greve-Dubois’ dress is still such a strong black after more than 140 years.

Only from the second half of the 19th century – following the Industrial Revolution – did black fabrics become cheaper due to the mechanisation of the dyeing process. At the end of the 19th century, synthetic dyes were developed, resulting in a democratisation of colour and making it increasingly visible in everyday life. Since then, black has no longer been the preserve of the rich or been restricted to mourning attirebut has grown in popularity for its timeless character, partly thanks to Chanel’s iconic ‘little black dress’, the work of Cristobàl Balenciaga, and Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’ of 1947. Today, black is an indispensable part of our wardrobe. Its stylishness and timelessness fit in with the increasing awareness for sustainability and ‘quiet luxury’, in which garments with a strong cut, good quality and in neutral colours play a prominent role. But the symbolic link with death and mourning also remains and is unlikely to disappear any time soon.