Saturday, June 19, 2010

Victorian Mourning Attire

We have long associated black clothing with funerals and mourning. This tradition has a long history, but the most complex social period in the West seems to have been Victorian. In the 19th century and early 20th, formal signs of mourning were outwardly displayed in the clothing one wore, sometimes for extended periods of time. Not like the one-day garb we wear at contemporary funerals, but as part of one’s everyday life for weeks, months, or, as in the case of good old Queen Vic herself, years.

Tracy Chevalier writes on her site: “Mourning clothes were a family’s outward display of their inner feelings. The rules for who wore what and for how long were complicated, and were outlined in popular journals or household manuals such as The Queen and Cassell’s – both very popular among Victorian housewives. They gave copious instructions about appropriate mourning etiquette. If your second cousin died and you wanted to know what sort of mourning clothes you should wear and for how long, you consulted The Queen or Cassell’s or other manuals.
        For deepest mourning clothes were to be black, symbolic of spiritual darkness. Dresses for deepest mourning were usually made of non-reflective paramatta silk or the cheaper bombazine – many of the widows in Dickens’ novels wore bombazine. Dresses were trimmed with crape, a hard, scratchy silk with a peculiar crimped appearance produced by heat. Crape is particularly associated with mourning because it doesn’t combine well with any other clothing – you can’t wear velvet or satin or lace or embroidery with it. After a specified period the crape could be removed – this was called slighting the mourning. The color of cloth lightened as mourning went on, to grey, mauve, and white – called half-mourning. Jewelry was limited to jet, a hard, black coal-like material sometimes combined with woven hair of the deceased.
        Men had it easy – they simply wore their usual dark suits along with black gloves, hatbands and cravats. Children were not expected to wear mourning clothes, though girls sometimes wore white dresses.
        The length of mourning depended on your relationship to the deceased. The different periods of mourning dictated by society were expected to reflect your natural period of grief. Widows were expected to wear full mourning for two years. Everyone else presumably suffered less – for children mourning parents or vice versa the period of time was one year, for grandparents and siblings six months, for aunts and uncles two months, for great uncles and aunts six weeks, for first cousins four weeks.”

The photographs on this page are from my collection and clearly show such truly elegant fashions.

Other sites to explore: 

Morbid Outlook’s Fashion History: Victorian Mourning Garb
An article on Mourning Fashion History by Pauline Weston Thomas for
And from a site with musical accompaniment: The Basics of Mourning – Victorian Style.

Monday, June 14, 2010

More scans from my Post Mortem Portrait Archive (Part Five)

Here are a few more images from my collection. They include tintypes from the 1860's and 70's, CDV's and Cabinet photos from the 1870's to 1890's. We often find that the child is posed with or on furniture, either in the photo-studio or at home.

This early tintype has the baby seated in a chair against plain white wall. Sometimes, when the baby needed support for photography, the mother or a studio assistant would place a black hood or cape over themselves, and hold the baby in their lap.

Appropriated for editorial use. Thank you to the owner, whoever that is...

This video is from YouTube, possibly made by a post mortem portrait collector. It has a musical soundtrack, so be forewarned.

A few more prints from my own collection:


The use of carriages and bassinets was common, a way to imply that the baby was only asleep, rather than dead.

Along with the usual post mortem portraits, one can find examples of memorial cards that were made available as well. They were usually letterpress text on a black or very dark purple cabinet card sized board. Usually there was no photograph at all, providing a less expensive option to hand out to guests at the funeral.

Other cabinet card sized photographs often included an earlier pre-mortem portrait printed with a stylized vignetting applied so as to indicate that these were memorial photos of the recently deceased. The most common convention in the USA was the scrolled paper edges. (See below, left)

Another option would be to set up the funeral flower arrangements and include a small pre-mortem portrait within the setting. The still life would be photographed and printed as a memorial photo for relatives.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Body Farm

Today, this Page contains GRAPHIC photographs of the DEAD.
Proceed only with the understanding that you may be disturbed.

      •  • • •••• •••• • •  •    

 "A body farm is a research facility where human decomposition can be studied in a variety of settings. The aim is to gain a better understanding of the decomposition process, permitting the development of techniques for extracting information (such as the timing and circumstances of death) from human remains. Body farm research is particularly important within forensic anthropology and related disciplines, and has applications in the fields of law enforcement and forensic science. Four such facilities exist in the United States." (from Wikipedia: link)

The original body farm was at the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility near Knoxville, TN, started by Dr. Bill Bass in 1981. A great article on Dr. Bass can be found at

Forensic anthropologist Bill Bass, left, and his co-author, Jon Jefferson, examine a decaying corpse on the Body Farm.
Picture: Caroline Overington

The video below gives you a good introduction to the facility and its history by Dr. Bass, himself.

Even National Geographic has produced a short video on Dr. Bass's work. Their version (with lots of camera jiggle effects) is less graphic than the videos provided below, but it gives a good overview of the facility.  See it at this link.

For a more graphic and detailed account of the Body Farm, also presented by Dr. Bass, see the three parts below. These are more graphic, so advanced warning is given....Viewer Beware!

Part One:

Part Two:

Part Three:

Of course with such a vivid concept of death and decay, it didn't take long for artists and writers to reference the facility within their work. First we find crime mystery writers using it as a backdrop for their stories and characters' lives. See Patricia Cornwell's The Body Farm, and of course Kathy Reichs' character, Dr. Temperance Brennan, who sometimes references the body farm in Reichs' novels (but not so much in the TV series, Bones). The author, herself, has a working knowledge of the body farm, as Dr. Reichs is one of only eighty-two forensic anthropologists ever certified by the American Board of Forensic Anthropology. Even Dr. Bass himself, along with his colleague Jon Jefferson, have collaboratively written crime mystery novels under the pen name Jefferson Bass. Their site also has links to more videos about the body farm.

One visual artist who has worked within the fence line of the body farm is photographer Sally Mann. Her book What Remains examines the mortality and decay of her family dog, the occupants of the body farm, and a fatal incident occurring near her home. A great documentary film was made in 2005 while she produced many of the images within her wonderful book. It is also entitled What Remains. Mann used the archaic 19th century collodion wet plate process in order to create these images on glass plates with a large format view camera. These are a few examples from her book:

(Above three images: copyright Sally Mann. Thanks in advance for their use here.)

The visual and almost tactile qualities of this old analogue process, with all its flaws and apparent image decay, seem well suited to documenting the dark mood and atmosphere of the body farm and its inhabitants, especially in the hands of an artist like Sally Mann.