Grieving for a loved one sometimes caused rashes, irritation… or perhaps one’s own demise.
In 19th-century America, mourning the death of a family member or friend was a highly structured ritual. Following strict rules of mourning dress and etiquette supposedly demonstrated one’s sincerity and Christian piety, and middle-class Victorians latched onto these customs as a way to prove their gentility and solidify their class position.
Unsurprisingly, women bore the brunt of the emotional labor that this culture of mourning demanded, and no woman was so constrained by cultural expectations as the widow. To demonstrate their bereavement, widows were to spend two and a half years proceeding through three stages of mourning — deep mourning, full or second mourning, and half mourning — each with its own fashion requirements and restrictions on behavior.
Deep mourning lasted a year and a day and required a widow to wear simple black dresses and don a full-length black veil anytime she left the house. Called a “weeping veil,” this shroud was made of a crimped silk fabric called crape, and wearing it allowed one to “weep with propriety,” as the women’s magazine M’me Demorest’s Quarterly Mirror of Fashions put it in 1862. Unfortunately, due to the dyes and chemicals used to the process the fabric, these veils could also cause skin irritation, respiratory illness, blindness, and even death.