Reader Request: Dressing for Grief

dressing for grief and mourning

Reader Karen emailed me this question:

My question for you has to do with how to approach clothing and style while one is experiencing grief. The Victorians had dressing for grief figured out: the grieving wore black or grey or lavender to help manifest their grief externally, and to signal to others the need for extra care or sensitivity. But in our own time, for better or worse, we seem to have lost these visible markers of sorrow.

Could you offer some suggestions for how clothing and style might help me move through the world as I am managing my grief? What are some ways that I could mark my loss for myself (perhaps with a piece of jewelry, wearing a particular color, etc.)?

How might I think about dressing for grief to encourage myself to actually get dressed on those difficult days? While clothing is not the first thing on my mind these days, I believe that an intentional approach to getting dressed in the midst of sorrow could help me present myself more authentically and perhaps help me to integrate the experience of loss more fully.

Karen¬†kindly agreed to let me post our correspondence. Here’s what I wrote to her:

I’m so sorry to hear that you’ve experienced such a painful loss. I hadn’t really given much thought to how style and grief might interact before, but here are a few things that came to my mind:

Above all, be gentle and patient with yourself. There is a huge body of rhetoric out there about coping with loss, and it’s incredibly contradictory. In my opinion, this is because no two people experience grief in the same way. This also makes most advice a bit useless, if well-meaning. But the only thing I’ve ever heard that makes near-universal sense is to be gentle and patient with yourself. What you’re going through is hard. It may take a long time before you feel like you’re even starting to heal, and that is completely OK. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s time to move on and don’t force yourself to do anything before you’re ready.

I think part of being gentle with yourself could certainly involve physical comfort, which is where style comes in. If typical comfort clothes aren’t an option for your daily life, look into middle-ground pieces: Ponte knit pants and skirts, flowy maxi dresses, waterfall cardigans, flat or supportive shoes. For me, the ultimate in security-comfort is a scarf. It envelops me in softness, and I feel safe and snug.

As you mentioned, including a practice of remembrance in your daily outfit assembly can be healing. This can be anything from wearing a locket with your loved one’s photo, to wearing that person’s favorite color somewhere in your outfit every day, to keeping a wearable item that belonged to your loved one on your person at all times. Do this for as long as it feels supportive and important.

There will be days when motivating yourself to get dressed will be challenging, and I imagine that you’ll need to handle those on a case-by-case basis. Some days, you may just not get dressed. Others, you’ll have to. And for those, it might be beneficial to create a few easy outfits that you can keep in your closet hanging together so you can throw them on without having to think too hard. Or even a few simple outfit formulas that you can fall back on when creativity feels out of reach.

Try to assemble these outfits/formulas on a day when you feel a little more energetic, if possible, and also try to incorporate jewelry and/or accessories. Accessorization and finishing touches are often the hardest to care about when your mind and heart are elsewhere, but you’ll feel and look more polished if you can remember to add a few. Mapping out which ones ahead of time will be helpful.

Finally, I can’t think of a truly elegant modern-day alternative to all-black mourning attire, and agree that lacking a public practice can feel odd. Regular clothes can feel almost costume-y when you are hurting badly and constantly. The only solution I could come up with – and it might not appeal at all – would be to find or create some sort of black armband for yourself.

Black armbands are a relatively widely recognized symbol of loss and mourning, but can also be fairly subtle. Wearing an armband may also inspire curiosity, though, and if you don’t feel ready to field questions about your loss, might not be a good idea. It depends on how significant it feels to mark your loss in a way that others can see, and also on your peer group and environment.

I hope some of these ideas will resonate with you and be helpful, and that you are surrounded by loving support during this difficult time.

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3 Responses to “Reader Request: Dressing for Grief”

  1. Ruth Slavid

    When I went to collect my partner’s death certificate from the hospital, the woman in the bereavement office (who was quite the jolliest person I had ever met) commented on the fact that we were both wearing bright orange skirts. Which I am only relaying to make it clear that there really are NO rules. You may wish to reflect your sadness, or you may wish to react against it. Most probably you will wish to do both at different times.
    Similarly, you may wish to convey different messages to different people.I work as a freelancer, and with some of my more distant clients, I didn’t want them to know that anything had happened at all, as it felt intrusive. If you want to reflect how you are feeling in the way that you dress that might be an issue.
    Two things that may help. One is that your partner may have had clothes that you can wear. Grieving is a seesaw of emotions, so do be careful if you have a surge of sorting out energy that you don’t get rid of absolutely everything and then regret it. There may be some things worth keeping. Today I wore a striped woollen scarf that belonged to my partner (he died in August 2014). I had always liked it, and am very happy to have kept it. I also wear a striped fleece that he had. And I kept a summer shirt of which he was very fond. I thought about wearing it this summer, put it on and decided that it really didn’t suit me. But I didn’t get rid of it, but kept it in a drawer. Maybe one day it will go…
    I was also keen to give some of his clothes away to friends, as it is nice to think of them being worn.
    Another thing I did was to spend some of the money that my partner left on myself. He loved buying me jewellery, particularly earrings, but I had a lot of those. So I commissioned a jeweller friend to make me a necklace which I wear frequently, although not all the time. It is ‘just’ a piece of jewellery to other people. I can explain it if I choose, and not if I choose not to.
    I hope some of this is helpful. Sally is right, everybody grieves differently. I think the important thing is to identify the areas where you have to keep functioning ‘business as usual’. In my case that was my work, but it could be with certain people, with your children’s school … In everything else, let yourself be as you want to be. Be kind and gentle to yourself as Sally said. Nothing is wrong if it doesn’t harm other people. I found that I minded some things much more than I thought I would, and others were much easier. I’m sure that is a common experience. And don’t be afraid to ask for help.
    Bereavement is a common experience in life. It is not one that we enjoy, but most of us get through it OK, in however long it takes us (I still don’t know how long that is).

  2. Roberta Johnson

    In some ways we’ve lost something, now that mourning customs are no more. Although I can’t imagine wearing black for a year, and then dark gray, and eventually a touch of lavender. They weren’t expected to go to work in those outfits, either.

    When a close friend was very ill years ago, it gave me a lot of comfort to wear things he had given me (he loved hats and bought me several, not to mention scarves and stuffed animals). After he passed, the mutual friend who helped his partner sort out his things sent me a necklace and earrings that my friend wore on Pride Day or at Halloween. 23 years later, I still wear that necklace and think of him (the earrings broke) and tell others who it belonged to. My sister-in-law still wears the dress that belonged to her best friend who died fifteen years ago. After the rawness fades, these things are mementos of happier times. Wear something your partner loved to see you in, or their fragrance. Or wear the mourning clothes of a culture you admire. Queens of France used to wear white, apparently.

    But other than that, wear whatever is soothing to YOU. If that means wearing the same pashmina every day for weeks, do so. I’m so sorry for your loss.

  3. Lucille N.

    I am grateful for this discussion. Having cared for (and lost) three generations of my family in three consecutive years all of whom had a sudden diagnoses, I think of this issue frequently. It can be really comforting to have a item of your loved one’s clothing on you or near you for comfort, but at the same time this is not quite the same as communicating one’s status out to the work-a-day world.

    While I would also not like to be ‘forced’ or dictated to by the morays of society about what colors I should, or shouldn’t wear after I experience the loss of a loved one; at the same time I always felt it would be nice to have an outward sign, like a black arm band as Sally suggested, which could communicate that my emotional state might be fragile. Sort of like a universal “please be extra gentle with me today” sign.

    In the olden days when many of us lived in smaller communities or small towns mostly everyone knew each other and/or were peripherally aware of one’s loss and could offer compassion accordingly. Flash forward today to our lives in large urban areas and that awareness is almost nil. And if people are aware of your loss they usually don’t know what to say so they mostly just avoid you. So at first, a lot of daily life after loss ends up being an emotional tight rope. Thus displaying some sort of “please be extra gentle with me today” sign would be wonderful.

    Sigh. I have never come up with a good thing to wear (beyond what Sally suggested) while grieving except sun glasses.