Dressing for Grief: What to Wear to a Funeral

Person choosing which suit to wear for a funeral


As reliably as the turn of the seasons, the holidays come every year. Sometimes they are a welcome distraction, a time of family togetherness and joy. But when you've suffered the loss of a loved one, the holiday season can feel like an agonizing reminder of your grief. And when the death is recent, that pain is even more keenly felt.


What should you wear to a funeral? For a long time, that question was simple to answer. Cultural practices and etiquette provided specific rules for funeral fashion, just like other grief rituals and funeral practices.


But things have changed. Funerals have become more personalized, the rules and expectations have become more lenient in some ways.


Some things are the same as ever, though. Clothing can still be a way to honor a loved one’s life or pay respects to a grieving family. And for some, picking out the right outfit can even help with managing the pain of loss and taking a step toward healing.


Fashions Change, but the Feelings Behind Them Don’t

Wearing specific garments as a ritual of mourning is an ancient practice.


The Bible has multiple references to people wearing sackcloth as a show of grief. In Ancient Rome, citizens would wear dark-colored togas as a symbol of mourning. And by the Medieval period, it had become the norm for members of a funeral procession to dress in black.


Black became associated with mourning in part because it’s a dark, somber color that reflects the feelings of sadness that accompany loss. But black dye was also too expensive for daily wear in ancient times. Wearing black became a sign of respect and a way to signal the importance of the event.


These days, black is much more common in day-to-day wear, but the sentiment of wearing clothes that pay respect to the deceased is still there. Taking care to wear something special helps acknowledge the importance of the occasion and the life it honors.


That might look like wearing your “Sunday best” dress clothes. Or it could mean wearing a color or pattern that was meaningful to your loved one. The actual color and style isn’t as important as its significance, and every family and every loss could be different.


Mourning Attire as an Outward Expression of Grief

At no time in history was funeral fashion as ornate or accompanied by rules as the Victorian Era. From the mid-1800s to the turn of the century, men and women who had lost spouses or other close family members were expected to follow specific dress guidelines for what colors and styles they could wear not just to the funeral but for the years following the loss.


Widows were expected to wear conservative black dresses and veils for two years after their husband’s death. Queen Victoria herself remained in mourning attire for the rest of her life after her husband died, dressing in black for forty years of her reign.


The reasons behind this trend of mourning attire were varied. But one purpose it served was to provide an external expression of a recent loss. If you saw a woman in full mourning attire, you would know she was dealing with a serious loss and might be more lenient or forgiving of unusual behavior.


Mourning attire, and formal mourning periods in general, have fallen out of fashion. But there is still value in allowing yourself time to grieve and feel a loss without placing pressure on yourself to get back to “normal” right away. Whether you do it through dress or some other method, finding ways to express your feelings and give yourself space and time to process the loss can be powerfully healing.


How to Dress for a Loved One’s Funeral

Some people leave explicit wishes about how they’d prefer to be remembered. They may not like the idea of guests being sad and would prefer it to feel more like a party. Of course, sadness at any funeral is inevitable and healthy. But dressing in the colors of a deceased’s favorite sports team or donning their favorite animal print can honor their memory, too, by reflecting their unique personality.


What matters more than how you’re dressed is how you feel. Wear something comfortable enough that it won’t cause any frustration or distraction at the service. Be mindful that anything you wear may remind you of the event, so choose an outfit that you won’t mind being tied to those memories.


And, if you choose a dress code for the service outside of traditional funeral attire, be sure to spread the word to guests in advance. Otherwise, expect most guests to come dressed conservatively, in whatever dark-colored suit or dress they own.


Chapman Funerals & Cremations has served families since Queen Victoria entered her period of mourning, and we are still here to help you through yours. From choosing the right way to lay your loved one to rest, to helping you choose what to wear, we can guide you through these difficult moments.


Reach out to speak with a funeral director, or visit us at any of our locations in Bridgewater, East Bridgewater, Falmouth, Harwich, Marstons Mills, Martha’s Vineyard, Mashpee, Wareham, West Falmouth, or Yarmouth, Massachusetts.

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