What are Mourning Clothes?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Mourning clothes are garments which are worn while someone is in mourning. Depending on the culture in which one lives, mourning clothes may be entirely new clothes specifically selected for this purpose, or they may be older garments which are modified slightly. In many cultures, no modification at all is needed, and people simply wear modest, somber clothes while they are in a period of mourning as a mark of respect for the deceased. Mourning clothes do have a rich and interesting history in many cultures, however, and some very fine examples of mourning clothes can sometimes be seen on display in textile museums.

Black clothes worn by people in mourning during the Victorian Era were known as widow's weeds.
Black clothes worn by people in mourning during the Victorian Era were known as widow's weeds.

The concept of mourning clothes probably reached its height in the West in the Victorian Era, when a complex and arcane set of rituals surrounding the mourning process evolved. The fashionablity of mourning was probably related to Queen Victoria, who chose to wear black for the rest of her life after the death of her consort, Prince Albert. Over time, complex rules about mourning began to arise among the British upper classes, where mourning presented an opportunity to be fashionable in the guise of being respectful.

As a general rule, mourning clothes in many cultures share several traits. They tend to be very simple, indicating that the wearer is not concerned with fashion or looking good, and they are typically sewn in somber colors. In the West, mourning clothes are often black, blue, purple, or gray; other colors are predominant in other regions of the world, especially white in Asia.

In some cultures, specific fabrics are used to make mourning clothes. These fabrics are often rough and coarse, while softer luxury fabrics are banned. In the Jewish tradition, mourners who were close to the decedent make small slits in their clothing, in a practice called keriah. Mourners may choose not to wear jewelry during the mourning process, and their general behavior tends to be muted as they process the death of a loved one. Mourners who are not close to the decedent may choose to wear black bands on their garments.

Some people think that it is unlucky to wear mourning clothes after a period of mourning is over. These individuals typically buy special clothes for mourning, and these clothes may be put in storage after a period of mourning is over, in case they are needed again. Mourning clothes may also be ritually burned or discarded in some cultures. In the Victorian Era, the black clothes worn by people in full mourning, the first and most intense stage of mourning, were known as widow's weeds, and they were typically not used again because they were so distinctive.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Something to note for the Jewish mourning custom keriah is that, if an immediate family member has passed away, like a parent or sibling, we make a slit in our clothing over where our heart is. If it is a more distant family member which has passed away, the slit is made on the right side.

We also have to dress simply and appropriately as many cultures do for a funeral. We don't dress in complete black as Christians do but black is still very much preferred. The most important thing for Jews who are attending a funeral is not to have put much effort in one's appearance. So everyone should be dressed simply with the attire that covers the skin. Women do not wear much makeup and usually men are expected to wear a kippah, the Jewish head covering. This simplicity in attire continues during shiva too. This is seven days of mourning for immediate family members.


I attended a Muslim funeral some years ago. I asked specifically about what I should wear. I was told that anything would be fine as long as it wasn't very colorful or attention grabbing. Most people wore their regular clothes in mainly black, white, gray or brown colors. I also noticed that all the women covered their head for the ceremony and prayer.

I think more so than clothes, the family was expected to stay home for 40 days and not engage in anything entertaining. It was their time for mourning and friends and relatives came to visit them and pay condolences during this time.


I watch a lot of Asian films and I always see everyone wearing white garments in scenes where there is a burial. In the west, black is the color of death but in the east, it's white.

I don't know if people still follow this tradition but in India, widows were required to wear white for the rest of their lives. This was also because widows were not allowed to remarry so they would literally spend the rest of their lives mourning for their husbands, just as Queen Victoria wore black and mourned for hers.

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