Sunday 6 January 2013

The Luxury of Woe (1 of 2)

The Swan and Edgar department store is long gone, the landmark building on the western side of Piccadilly Circus occupied in recent years by a succession of failing, youth-orientated retailers - Tower Records, Virgin Megastore, Zavvi. But in its heyday before the Great War the company supplied the capital with funerary habiliments, or mourning clothes, on a tremendous scale. Mourning the dead was in those days an elaborate business governed by a complex set of sartorial conventions that reflected the nature of the loss - be it parent, child, sibling, distant relation, friend or acquaintance. These finely-calibrated degrees of grief were embodied in a subtly-graded range of appropriate clothing, and the extent to which the Victorian and Edwardian haute bourgeoisie invested emotionally and financially in black crêpe and bombazine is from our modern perspective quite astonishing. Swan and Edgar's lavish catalogues offered collections comprising veils, hats, day and evening-wear, frock-coats and accessories, (including jewellery) and lockets to house the departed's portrait, or hair. Modest black armbands were for the lower orders, for servants, and for men in uniform. 

Formal mourning - not to be confused with grieving - extended for between six months for a sibling and two years for a husband (the first twelve months in virtual purdah), but was open-ended for a dead child and permanent in the case of Queen Victoria's devotion to her dear Albert. Mourning was a public affair, especially when it came to the checks and balances of widowhood. A set of conventions both vestimentary and verbal surrounded the widow: elaborate, precise and now largely forgotten, fading around the middle of the last century. The Great War saw an end to Swan and Edgar's role in the capital's grief - the mills of Yorkshire and Lancashire were busy weaving khaki, not funereal crêpe, and there was a colossal glut of mourners.

In Beckett's 1958 play Krapp's Last Tape, Krapp is startled by a recording of his younger self confidently using the word 'viduity'. He has to look it up:

KRAPP: (reading from dictionary). State—or condition of being—or remaining—a widow—or widower. (Looks up. Puzzled.) Being—or remaining? . . . (Pause. He peers again  at dictionary. Reading.) "Deep weeds of viduity" . . . Also of an animal, especially a bird . . . the vidua or weaver bird . . . Black plumage of male . . . (He looks up. With relish.) The vidua bird!"

© Faber and Faber Ltd / The Estate of Samuel Beckett

To be continued . . .

1 comment:

  1. You will remember, of course, Hood's Magazine and Comic Miscellany (1844) in which the following exchange was published:
    Shopman: Now here is a very rich one – real Genoa – and a splendid black. We call it 'The Luxury of Woe'.
    Lady: Very expensive, of course?
    Shopman: Only 18/- a yard, and a superb quality – in short, fit for the handsomest style of domestic calamity.
    Lady: And as to the change of dress, sir; I suppose you have a great variety of half-mourning?
    Shopman: Oh! Infinite – the largest stock in town. Full, and half, and quarter, and half-quarter, shaded off, if I may say so, like an India-ink drawing, from a grief prononcé to the slightest nuance of regret.
    Alison Adburgham, Shops and Shopping 1800-1914, George Allen & Unwin, 1964.