Downton Abbey: In a season of weird episodes … look, Mr. Bates!

Patricia Treble on the latest episode and the rituals of mourning

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In a season full of weird episodes, this was one of the strangest—look Mr. Bates is released from prison! Lady Edith has yet another inappropriate suitor! Everyone is just fine with Sybil’s baby being christened a Catholic and Thomas’s homosexuality! Indeed, the only common element in the episode was the cast’s mourning clothes. Yup, there was so much black, grey and purple that Downton Abbey could have been mistaken for a Goth convention, minus the tattoos and piercing.

The Crawleys were grieving for Lady Sybil, who died in childbirth. While tears were repressed—so not the British way—they could show their distress by wearing a lot of dark, dismal colours. Mourning rituals had grown increasingly elaborate during the Victorian era. As Helen Rappaport wrote in A Magnificent Obsession, her wonderful book about the Queen’s over-the-top reaction to Albert’s early death, “Mourning protocols then current in Britain demanded 12 months of black for a parent or child (with only a retreat to half-mourning in the final three months); six months for a sibling, three months for an aunt or uncle; and six weeks for a first cousin.” Victoria extended and codified them for her court, and thus huge swathes of her nation. Full mourning started by wearing dull crape—the fabric version of tightly pleated crepe paper—before shifting to shinier black satins and silks. After that half mourning colours of grey, white or the newer shades of lilac, mauve and purple could be worn. So when Princess Alice, Victoria’s daughter, married a year after Albert’s death, all her honeymoon dresses were black. The rules applied to everything. Houses were draped in black cloth and mirrors were covered. All jewellery had to be black or white (jet or diamonds and pearls). There was such a trade that the trade in jet, centred around Whitby on the coast, expanded from 35 workers in the 1830s to more than 1,000 skilled workers in the 1870s.

Queen Victoria’s over-the-top rules have slowly been relaxed. On her death in 1901 court mourning went on for more than six months, while the entire population was in official full mourning for six weeks followed by another six weeks in half mourning. By George VI’s death in 1952, court mourning was four months. Men wore black armbands and ties, women wore their most sombre outfits. When the Queen Mother died in 2002, the country observed 10 days of mourning leading up to her funeral. Now, though black is preferred, it’s acceptable for those without official mourning wardrobes to wear grey or other non-flashy colours. Just don’t expose skin: In 1991, a female Tory cabinet minister was criticized for wearing a black cocktail dress to the funeral of former governor general Roland Michener.

And some can use mourning to show the depth of their sorrow. While Princess Caroline Monaco officially mourned for three months after her second husband, Stefano Casiraghi, was killed in 1990, in reality she wore black for a year. She also quit official duties in Monaco and retreated to a farmhouse in Provence with her children.

While mourning today is usually private, it can be a powerful symbol. When the duke of Devonshire died in 2004, he passed away confident that his revolutionary transformation of the Chatsworth estate into a commercial entity had saved the family fortune and hundreds of local jobs. On the day of the funeral, black-and-white clothed Chatsworth staff lined the one-mile route from the house to the church, bowing and curtsying as the hearse drove by.