Widow’s Weeds: A Culture’s Fascination With Mourning

Cummerbund; ca. 1890
Gift of Cornelia Davis on behalf of her parents Orville and Gertrude Burtis
Kansas State University Historic Costume and Textile Museum, 1984.39. 75c
Silk crêpe, silk taffeta

A cummerbund is a sash or girdle worn around the waist. The term “cummerbund” comes from the Urdu and Persian word kamar-band, or loin-band. This specific cummerbund is 28 inches wide, 6 inches tall, and part of a bodice and skirt of a complete nineteenth-century mourning outfit. The garment is made of two different overlapping fabrics. A black mourning crepe, or silk crepe, was used for the center diamond shape. Within the diamond, there are three vertical lines or ruched folds. The bands surrounding the center diamond as well as the knotted work that outlines the diamond shape are made of silk taffeta. Framing the edges of the taffeta are thirty-two French knots, sixteen on each side of the center. The elegant French knotted stitch is an embroidery technique where the thread is gently wrapped around the needle creating a textured, knot-like ball on the surface of the fabric. Four evenly spaced hook and eye clasps provide a closure for the garment.

This cummerbund is representative of the nineteenth century’s obsession with mourning. During the period, death was ubiquitous, something that visited Americans early and often, an almost constant companion. Mourning outfits allow us to access this culture of commemoration. Mourning outfits for women were often called “widow’s weeds,” because black garments started taking on a rusty color with age. Unlike today, death was a public topic and families obsessed over and embraced popular grieving rituals. In fact, families would sometimes sink into debt in order to honor the death of a loved one. Usually, mourners transitioned through multiple stages of commemoration: first or deep mourning, second mourning, ordinary mourning, and light mourning. While these phases of mourning could vary, typically each of these stages would last six months. By the end of the nineteenth century, this fascination with mourning disappeared from popular culture and is now considered morbid.


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Kari Bingham-Gutierrez