Cultural Context

Cummerbund*** Cummerbund*** Cummerbund***

A woman with an extremely tiny waist wore the mourning outfit. The bodice, which pairs with the cummerbund, measures only twenty inches around the waist, while the cummerbund is a mere twenty-eight inches. If this bodice were sold in stores today, it would be in the XXS section, which is nonexistent in most stores (“Out There Clothing”). In other words, a shopper would have to venture into the children/tween’s section for a size that petite. The cummerbund, at least three sizes larger than the bodice, could be found in the women’s medium section. Marla Day, the curator of the Historic Costume and Textile Museum at Kansas State University, struggled to find a mannequin that could wear the entire outfit and had to settle with dressing a modern-sized mannequin in only the cummerbund.

Mourning outfits, or widow’s weeds—an expression designating a woman dressing in black clothing, were made of crepe, wool, silk, cotton, or a blend of these fabrics (Loeffel-Atkins 21). However, the most popular material was crepe. The term “weeds” comes from the garments becoming a rusty color with age (Loeffel-Atkins 21). The cummerbund is comprised of two different overlapping materials. The center diamond shape is made of black mourning crepe, or silk crepe. Its texture looks like crepe paper that people use to decorate a child’s birthday party. Silk crepe is a very lightweight material and thus perfect for layering. It is made with “tightly twisted weft yarns, or filling, running in reverse directions from left to right” (“Silk de Crepe”). Within the diamond there are three vertical lines created by ruched folds. Although not perfectly straight, the folds create an added flair to the piece that is just simple enough not to draw too much attention. 

The rest of the cummerbund is made of silk taffeta. This material is used for the bands surrounding the center as well as for the knotted work that outlines the diamond shape. The taffeta constructs two different layers. The top layer slopes toward the middle and connects to three knots surrounding the center, while the middle layer creates the three knots surrounding the top of the center. Compared to the silk crepe, the silk taffeta has a shinier, more lustrous finish (“Silk Taffeta”). Framing the edges of the taffeta pieces are thirty-two French knots, sixteen on each side of the center. The French knots are roughly the size of an eraser tip and spaced an inch to an inch and a half apart. After years of wear, they are slightly coming undone. Like the French knots, the pleating on the taffeta is almost unrecognizable. What once could have been delicate and precise folds now make the garment look like it should visit the dry cleaners to steam out some wrinkles.

The final pieces to this cummerbund are the four pairs of hook and eye clasps on the ends. On the left side rest the black eyes, four evenly spaced along the six-inch wide cummerbund. They sit neatly in ruched lines. On the opposite end and on the underside of the garment are the hooks, also black. The ends of the cummerbund are fraying, which could easily have been caused from normal wear and tear over time.


While the bodice of the mourning outfit is not the focus of this project, it provides insight into the origin of the cummerbund. A tag inside of the bodice indicates that the items were created in Paris by Madame Percheron.

Unfortunately, scouring the web for Madame Percheron did not return any search results. The only conclusive evidence the label provides is that this item was made in Paris. In all likelihood, it was purchased there as well. It would make sense that the mourning outfit would originate from Paris, as mourning culture began across the pond.


In the nineteenth century, death was common. War raged across the world, childbirth was dangerous for women, and babies did not have high survival rate. Victorians were one of the first societies to grasp on to the presentation and act of mourning. Mary Brett claims that “death was not the most tragic event for Victorians, but to die unremembered and not mourned was greatly feared” (17). Families and friends of the deceased would host extravagant funerals and commemorate their lives by creating jewelry of teeth or hair, wreaths, clocks, poetry, portraits, paintings, or anything else they thought could capture the essence of their lost loved ones.

Victorian-era Americans took their cues from England. They copied the images of Queen Victoria, who made the “ritual of mourning fashionable” (Loeffel-Atkins 6). Like the royal Queen, Americans also had loved ones to mourn, and what better way to do that than by expressing their sorrow and grief through art.

The mourning process, for women, lasted for at least three months, yet depending on her emotional ties to the deceased, mourning could span for a duration of several years. For men mourning their wives, the period of mourning was only three months. This shortened period allowed for the husband to return to work.

Mourning did not occur in one fell swoop; it had many stages. “Slowly the widow would go through the mourning stages, from first mourning, second mourning, ordinary mourning and finally light or half mourning” (Loeffel-Atkins 25). As one progressed through the stages, the restrictions lessened and flare could be added to the outfit. In second mourning, the woman could put away the mourning veil and begin donning clothing in colors other than black, such as white cuffs and sleeves. In the final stage of mourning, the widower was “reintroduced into society” and returned to life as usual (Loeffel-Atkins 21).