Let's bring back mourning clothes

The mourning period is a nebulous and tricky thing to navigate in modern life. The boyfriend of a very close friend died in an accident the summer after our freshman year of college. The most agonizing conversations I remember having with her revolved around the expectations others placed on her grief rather than the death itself: When would she “get over it”? How long was she going to remain single? Did she ever think she’d get married? When she began dating another person, she confronted all kinds of unkind judgment from those who thought she’d “moved on” too quickly and wondered (yes, out loud) if she’d really loved the boyfriend who had died.

Would mourning clothes have helped her or hindered her? So often we think of the strictures of the Victorians as constraining, but there is a sense in which their very formal propriety feels appropriate and even comforting. If you exclude certain religious traditions—sitting shiva, for example—in which the processes immediately following death are heavily prescribed and demand an explicit and relatively lengthy interruption of everyday life, modern grief is missing a sense of etiquette and deliberateness—a set of outward signs for the bereaved to use as signals.