This past weekend I was in a historical museum in a little town nearby, doing research for another writing project. While making my way to the main exhibition area, I was drawn to a small display of black crepe clothing – widow’s weeds, to be exact. The case description enumerated society’s expectations for widows during the Victorian period. (I don’t know why we Americans felt obligated to adopt Queen Victoria’s practices upon the death of her husband, but we did.)
The display listed three consecutive types of mourning garb: 1) a black dress with full crepe for twelve months plus one day following the death of a husband, 2) some black crepe over a black dress for nine more months, followed by just a black dress for three months, and 3) subdued color dresses for the remaining mourning period of six months. So for two and half years a widow’s clothing revealed the change in her marital status – and even after that, she was expected to never wear bright colors again.
The above rules, by necessity, could only have applied to women who had the means to afford the proper dress and to adorn their homes with even more black crepe as directed by societal norms.
I wore a black dress and jacket to my husband’s memorial service, and others in the immediate family tended to wear black as well. Beforehand I tried jackets with white or another neutral color, and they just didn’t seem right. I felt I was representing Rick by my choices and that I needed to be traditional and respectful. (Does the choice of all black label me somewhat of a Victorian, too?) In the first months of widowhood, I found myself drawn to black and white clothing, feeling as if I wore something bright it would suggest I wasn’t properly grieving the loss of my beloved. Over time I became more confident that my clothing choices were not an outward representation of my internal feelings, and now I wear whatever I choose.
The 2000 U.S. Census indicated half of women over 65 are widowed, and 70% of them live alone. I haven’t reached that age, but those figures just amaze me. Where are they? We all know some widows, of course – but when I look across my mostly senior community, I don’t perceive that a third of the homes are inhabited by widows. We widows seem to just disappear from the scene, which seems populated more with intact couples. As a married woman I met recently said to me, “You’re widowed; get over it” – with the implication that the rest of my life was now constrained because I no longer had a husband.
Clumps of widowed, divorced and single women are seen, but that is not yet for me. I go to the movies alone and dine in restaurants by myself. I take trips, even overseas, without a traveling partner. (I socialize with women, too, but just a few women at a time.) Despite the aforementioned woman’s mean-spirited or simply ignorant comment, my life is not constrained — just different. My current endeavors, while they may be a bit uncommon within my immediate community, bring me confidence and pleasure.