What are Widow's Weeds?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Widow's weeds are garments that are worn during a period of mourning. Many people think of the Victorian era in England when they hear the term because this era was marked by very rigid and distinctive mourning practices. In most modern societies, people do not mourn publicly in the same ways that they did historically, and the concept of wearing these garments is a bit of an anachronism.

A dress characteristic of the Victorian era that may have been worn for mourning.
A dress characteristic of the Victorian era that may have been worn for mourning.

The term is also used more generally to describe the cultural rituals associated with death, particularly the death of a spouse. Historically, people might say “she's still in widow's weeds” to refer to someone who was still mourning a spouse, whether or not she wore full mourning dress. Most cultures have their own unique rituals that are designed to help people cope with death; most of these mourning rituals are divided into stages which allow people to slowly re-enter the world.

In the Victorian era, the rules for mourning were quite complex, especially for widows. Widows were expected to remain in full mourning for a year and day, after which they would transition through various stages of partial mourning. During the full mourning period, widows wore simple clothing in muted colors, with upper class women wearing black only, transitioning to purples, grays, and blues once they entered the period of half mourning.

The “weeds” in the term comes from the Old English waed, which means “garment.” Widow's weeds have several defining characteristics, including dark or muted colors and simple designs. Classically, women did not wear heavily decorated garments either, removing things like superfluous embroidery and lace. The clothing often included long veils, as well, and in the first year, women wore no jewelry.

The wearing of widow's weeds would have instantly distinguished a widow from those around her, making her state very obvious. It was also a class symbol, as only the very wealthy could afford full mourning, which involved an entirely new wardrobe and a general withdrawal from society. Modern mourning dress is generally worn for only a brief period of time, and it may not necessarily be entirely new; any sort of somber dress is appropriate today in many regions of the world.

In some cultures, the tradition of wearing widow's weeds for extended periods of time persists. In some Catholic countries, for example, widows may choose to wear black for the rest of their lives, especially in very rural, traditional areas. In others, the process of slowly transitioning to more normal garments is an important step in the grieving process, acknowledging the sadness of a death and slowly working through it.

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


The mourning process and widow's weeds are meant to be natural. Wearing special clothing is meant to protect the widow by signaling to others to be careful of her grief. It means no one will criticize her for not feeling up to wearing make up or doing her hair.

Wearing normal clothes again after being widowed was also a way to let people know you were now looking to remarry. That's why women generally wore them for a year and a day, but could wear them for longer or shorter amounts of time.

The grief process varies, but a year is the average time an adult generally needs to process through the majority of their grief and a day is added so the transition doesn't happen on the anniversary of the person's death, but instead just following.

It is meant to help the person recognize the passage of time and the need to move forward from their pain.

These days, widow's weeds are uncommon, but then, our culture doesn't make room for anyone to have a period of mourning for a spouse. It is expected that there is a funeral and you can be sad occasionally, but unless you are retired, you must return to normal life, work, and attire in a matter of days.


@feruze, @cloudel-- I don't agree with the two of you because I don't think that's the point of widow's weeds.

The purpose of wearing a specific color and type of clothing in mourning is for people to be able to identify you and know that you have just lost a loved one. This is not to punish the person but rather to help them.

How would you feel if you just lost a husband, a mother or a child and no one around you was aware of it? What if they kept asking you about your family and bringing you to tears because they just don't know what's going on?

That's the point of widow's weeds. When people see someone in widow's weeds, they would know to be careful around them and understand that they're going through a sensitive and difficult time.

Do you see what I mean? It's not a bad thing. This kind of representation is actually helpful and beneficial for the mourning person, it's not a punishment.


@cloudel-- I completely agree with you!

Widow's weeds reminds me of the mourning rituals in India. Widows in India are also required to follow certain rules after their husbands die. Some people don't follow it these days, but there are still lots of women who do.

One of the requirements is to wear all white, like widow's weeds. They also don't wear jewelry and are expected to be reserved and quiet. Some strict families also have widows cut their hair short and only allow them to eat bland food. And this is not just for a year or two either, but for the rest of their lives.

To me, this sounds like punishment for the widow even though she did nothing wrong. Why is she suffering if her husband died? It's already painful enough to deal with death but to also deal with all these social pressures and rules is horrible.


This is very interesting. I think that mourning rituals are partially good because when one can mourn early on after the loss of a loved one, it's better for that person's psychology. But this time might vary from person to person. So forcing someone to wear black for a year or more sounds a bit too extreme.

If someone is able to grieve their loss in a shorter amount of time and transition to normal life again, then they should be allowed to. I think if I had to wear black and refrain from certain behaviors and actions for a year, it would make my psychology even worse. It might cause me to be more depressed.


A lot of clothing back in the days of widow's weeds was rather drab, anyway. I'm surprised that anyone could tell when a lady was mourning, unless she was wealthy and one of the few who owned colorful, beautiful dresses.

Then, the black widow's weeds would identify her status as a mourning widow. It would be sad for a women with a beautiful, varied wardrobe to be reduced to wearing dark garments for over a year, though.


@cloudel – I do agree that having a set time frame for wearing mourning garments isn't healthy or logical. However, wearing dark or neutral clothing for awhile can be a good way for a woman to express her sadness as she works through her husband's death.

My good friend lost her husband last year, and she just hasn't had the desire to wear bright or cheerful clothing since then. She wore black to the funeral, and she has been wearing mostly uninteresting clothing ever since, though I don't think it was intentional.

Widow's weeds show the world that a woman is sad. I do think that it's perfectly acceptable for her to start wearing more colorful clothing whenever she is ready, though.


I think it's terrible that women were forced to wear mourning garments for a whole year. What if they weren't particularly close to their husbands? What if their husbands had been abusive, and they were happy to be free from them?

I think that the mourning process should be natural. Everyone recovers at different speeds, and it isn't healthy for people to continue to be surrounded by things like clothes that remind them of their loss when they are ready to move on with their lives.


It sounds like widow's weeds gave identity to the women that wore them. Imagine being known as the woman who lost her husband simply because of what you wore! I suppose even people from out of town could point out the widows back then.

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