Friday, April 13, 2012

A "Season" spent in Mourning

On January 29, 1820, King George III died. Six days earlier his fourth son, the Duke of Kent (father of the later Queen Victoria) had died. The death of the king was a grief for his family, a loss for the nation, and had myriad ramifications both political and historical. The royal family was swamped by loss.

An inconsequential, but none the less fascinating, effect of the death of the old king was that it plunged the beau monde into mourning clothes. The "Season"--the social whirl that enveloped London's highest society every spring--was coloured black.

La Belle Assemblee, the foremost fashion magazine of the era, reflected the sombre mood of the spring. February and most of March were spent in deepest black. Anyone who could afford to wear mourning (it was not an inexpensive matter to obtain suitable, fashionable clothes) did so.

The journal, by April, suggested that the need for complete black had passed:

As we have before observed, Taste and Genius know how to draw aside the sable veil of woe, and to divest it of its cloudy monotony. The change of mourning which took place on Sunday, the 19th of March, aided, also, in a great degree, to lighten the heavy appearance of solemn black, and to give a diversity to the garb of sorrow...
In fact, La Belle Assemblee stated that it was, in some quarters, an economic necessity that mourning be alleviated:
Yet the needy manufacturer, who has been toiling at the loom in vain to impart brilliancy and freshness to the various hues of spring, and has racked invention for the newest patterns, call loudly for our commiseration, and makes us wish for the outward appearance of sorrow to be laid aside, as soon as is consistent with a proper and decorous respect paid to the memory of one of the best of England's Kings.
Nevertheless, the gowns it displayed in April for the beginning of the Season were only barely touched with white
 The gown's description emphasizes the materials of mourning fashion, particularly jet and crape:
Round dress of black crape, over a black satin slip; the dress made with a demi-train, and ornamented round the border with three fluted flounces of crape, each flounce headed by a superb embroidery of small jet beads and bugles. Corsage a Louis Quatorze, ornamented with jet and bugles to correspond. Tucker of white crape in folds, fastened in puff divisions by bows of white love. The head adorned with the regal coronet turban.
The morning gown, however, reflects the lightening of the severest black.

Close Turkish robe of grey sarsnet, elegantly ornamented with puffings wreathed round with narrow black trimming, and finished at the throat by a double English ruff of fine muslin, fringed. Cornette of fine India muslin, with regal points of satin, crowned with black flowers. Black satin slippers, and grey kid gloves.
La Belle Assemblee goes on to describe black satin figured pelisses for walking costume, black satin bonnets for the promenade, black sarsnet gowns for day wear. It does suggest that "grey silks are, as yet, chiefly worn en deshabille..." and that for dinner or evening parties at home "a white tablier [a sort of apron] of crape gives a pleasant relief to the sombre black".

The expense of dressing well in mourning must have been immense. And yet a lady at the highest echelons of Society could not afford to neglect any detail of observance.

To conclude the article, La Belle Assemblee reproved the French:
However sincerely the French may mourn, or whether they can possibly mourn long, is not for you nor I to determine. Certain it is, they never appear to mourn long...
Why they should mourn for an English king is not clear to me!

But the English did mourn their old king, and for the fashionable of the spring of 1820, that mourning changed everything.

'Til next time,


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