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My name is Patricia Turnour and I am curator at Coldwater Canadiana Heritage Museum (CCHM). Among other things, my very rewarding work includes acquiring new artifacts, setting up displays and researching local history. As a volunteer, not-for-profit organization CCHM benefits from the generosity of grants to hire students for the summer months. Their work in cataloguing our collection has been invaluable.
Through the articles we write, our individual interests are emerging. My previous research on hats grew out of my passion for them. I sport one every day that I work at the museum.
My other passion is vintage clothing. We recently displayed our collection during the Coldwater Fall Fair. Our most interesting apparel is our selection of widow’s wear, also known as “widow’s weeds.”
What are Widow’s Weeds?
The word “weeds” is an old English term meaning garments. It was originally spelled “waeds.”
There have always been cultural rites associated with death. Common in Western society has been the wearing of black. But the most complex list of rules emerged during the Victorian era. Queen Victoria herself donned full widow attire after the passing of her beloved consort, Prince Albert. For over 40 years she continued to wear black. Even her staff wore black clothing and black armbands. It is believed that the only time she was not in black was when she was buried in her white wedding dress.
Only the upper-class women, who could afford the expense of replacing an entire wardrobe, followed Queen Victoria’s lead. When grieving the loss of a husband, parent or child her mourning rules were strictly followed. A mourning consultant would often be hired to guide a widow through the exercise, which included some bizarre regimens such as corresponding exclusively on black-edged stationary and greeting cards.
The weeds consisted of long black dresses, capes, veils, hats and shawls. All were usually made of coarse uncomfortable materials thus enhancing the widow’s suffering. This attire was not for the faint of heart, especially during the warm summer months! Weeping veils were worn to hide the widow’s face and most dresses had large sleeves used to wipe away the widow’s tears.
No adornments were permitted in the initial stage of one’s grief but eventually black jewelry called jet – a fossilized, light weight wood – was allowed. Few social engagements were attended besides church and funerals. Widows were expected to behave conservatively.
Following a year and one day of deep mourning, a period of half mourning prevailed, during which a slight brightening of attire to colours such as greys and browns was acceptable. After the year and a day of deep mourning, widows were meant to burn their weeds to provide closure and show the end of their grief.
After the Victorian era, these rituals and strict protocols faded. However, during the era the custom did prevail in North America.
CCHM is fortunate to have an extensive collection of widow’s weeds. Some of the items, we believe, were actually worn by the Woodrow ladies. Thankfully, they were more frugal than most and did not burn this clothing. They likely passed it on to others in need. It was also believed to be bad luck to wear these clothes when not in mourning.
To have such items intact is very special and our collection will be on display when we reopen in the Spring.
Stay tuned for my next article titled: All Around the Cobbler’s Bench about one of our latest displays. Located in the carriage barn is a wonderful display of shoes, skates, boots, harnesses, etc. The role of the shoemaker extended way beyond mere footwear.
(Portions of this article appeared in the Coldwater Current newspaper in August 2012.)