Jet necklace and black silk tie

UK, 1850 and 2000

[b]Left:[/b] Donated by Mrs J. E. Chaney in 1956; 1956.4.2[br][b]Right:[/b] Purchased in 2002; 2002.26.1Left: Donated by Mrs J. E. Chaney in 1956; 1956.4.2
Right: Purchased in 2002; 2002.26.1

The Victorians turned mourning into an industry. High mortality rates meant that death was arguably something that people experienced in their everyday lives and was much less of a taboo than it might be today. But the catalyst for the veritable celebration of death in the later 19th century was the early death of Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria in 1861. Mourning photography, postcards and floristry all flourished but the most widespread fashion was for black clothes and jewellery.

Black had been associated with death and widowhood since Roman times but the Queen's adoption of black thereafter set the trend for formal mourning clothing and behaviour among the upper social classes. Men were not exempt and were required to wear black mourning suits. The custom of wearing a dark suit to a funeral and wake endured throughout the 20th century to the present day, as illustrated by this silk black neck-tie purchased by a member of staff for the Museum at Walter's formal menswear shop in Turl Street, Oxford in 2000. Today, the wearing of black at funerals continues although it is declining somewhat.

It was women who were most subjected to Victorian mourning customs. Heavy black dresses were complemented with specially made accessories such as crêpe veils, bonnets, umbrellas and shoes. Dark coloured jewellery was also deemed appropriate and this was often made of jet. Jet is a naturally occurring coal-like stone that can be easily carved and polished to achieve a brilliant finish. Queen Victoria decreed that only jet jewellery be worn at court for one year following Albert's death. This set of jet links is joined in places with black silk and was part of longer mourning necklace. Whitby in Yorkshire is famous as a source of jet where it is laid down as layers in the coastal rock, the product of millions-years old fossilized monkey-puzzle (Araucaria) trees. At the height of the jet craze in the early 1870s, there were more than 200 jet shops and manufacturers in Whitby, which were producing enough to supply the home market as well as exporting to the Continent, the United States and the Empire. Jet was not cheap so imitation jet made from dark tortoise-shell or Irish bog-oak was also used. Many of the so called "jet" hair ornaments of this period were in fact made from another substitute called 'French jet', a glittering type of black glass imported in quantities from Bohemia (now the Czech Republic).

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