By Patricia Treble - Monday, February 11, 2013 - 0 Comments
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.