Black or coloured?

Charles 16 Comments

 Posted by Richard Rawlinson

With the trend for approaching funerals as celebrations of life, I gather it’s become more fashionable to wear bright colours that challenge the convention of wearing black for mourning.

Is this the experience of undertakers and celebrants here? If so, are people dressing down in line with the general trend for more casual attire, or are they continuing to dress up for funerals, only without sticking to black?

How popular is it for a specific colour to be requested because it’s the favourite of the deceased person: a Liverpool supporter being honoured, for example, by guests wearing red?

Do many undertakers now ditch the black, too? And how do celebrants dress to either blend in or set themselves apart from the congregation/audience?

I’d welcome your insights into the contemporary scene, not attending many funerals myself, and those I do go to tending towards traditional black.

There’s no right or wrong here but I’ll nail my colours to the mast by saying I like to witness a sea of monochrome mourners, reminiscent of the throng at a school assembly. There’s something unifying and democratising about a uniform on certain occasions. Bonded by a common thread, black says, ‘we’re all in it together’, no one standing out as either above or below another.

Black is also practical, not just because it conceals grimy marks, but because most of us possess a dark suit and white shirt so we don’t need to rush out to buy something new. Then there’s the claim I recently read online that bright colours make people cry! I quote: ‘Smiles are terrible for depressed people, it’s like the person is happy about our pain if they wear bright colours. Basically because misery loves company’.

Black has symbolised many things over the years, from evil to virtue, wealth to poverty, puritanical unworldliness to the height of fashion. In Roman times, the Emperor wore purple, soldiers wore red, priests wore white and artisans wore black, albeit primitively dyed meaning clothes soon faded to murky grey. Black togas were, however, worn for funerals.

In the Middle Ages, black was associated with the devil, although it was also worn by Benedictine monks as a sign of humility and penitence. Aristocrats showed their wealth through bright colours and, in some parts of Europe, commoners were prohibited from wearing these colours denoting noble rank. Wealthy merchants in northern Italy responded by choosing black robes in the most expensive cloths.

Black became emblematic of Protestantism, and a reaction against the opulence of Catholic church interiors, and the red worn by the Pope and Cardinals. Artists took sides, too, with Protestant Rembrandt using a sober palette of blacks and browns, and Catholic Rubens favouring rich brights. At the same time, all churches in the 17th century became superstitious about witchcraft, persecuting unfortunate women who kept a black cat.

With the emergence of the middle classes in the 18th and 19th centuries, a dark, sober wardrobe became fashionable across society in Europe, not just for mourning. It was the colour of the French Revolution and of the Industrial Revolution, fuelled by coal and oil. It was the colour favoured by romantic poets such as Shelley, usually portrayed in black jacket teamed with an open white shirt.

In the 20th century, black was the colour of fascism, but also Parisian intellectuals and New York beatniks. Chanel pioneered the Little Black Dress, Marlon Brando was the pinnacle of cool in his biker leathers in The Wild One and, later, punks and goths saw black as part of their rebellious subculture.

And here we are today. Black tie parties are now few and far between, and black is not necessarily expected at funerals.


Footnote: You can stop reading here but, while on the subject of sartorial traditions, I’ve been vexed of late about why we always associate the fez with the smoking jacket. Why do we see Victorian gents wearing this cap and jacket ensemble when relaxing at home, when usual etiquette is for men to uncover their heads indoors?

As with so much menswear history, the answers are practical first, aesthetic second. In the days before central heating, the cap kept one warm when indulging in a sedentary activity such as reading in a library chair, cigar in hand. As this is a private domestic activity the no-headwear-indoors rule doesn’t apply.  

The small size and softness of the fez/smoking cap is also more comfortable than a more formal head-warmer such as hard topper or bowler, just as a velvet/silk-quilted smoking jacket/robe is more comfortable than a tailored morning coat designed to be worn out and about during the day.

Finally, the smoking cap and jacket protected the hair and regular clothing from the smell of smoke.

As well as being lightweight and protective against draughts and odour, the classic fez style of Ottoman origin—cone-shaped red felt with a black tassel—became popular for aesthetic reasons, too, conjuring up a backstory of a British gent who was well-travelled and worldly. The style was adapted as a velvet cap, decorated with gold embroidery, giving fiancés and wives something to work on as a personalised, home-made present for the man in their life.

It would have been as bad form to wear this intimate, domestic cap at one’s club as it would be to walk out in a nightgown. Wearing a hat in a public interior is a criticism of the host’s temperature control, and if you’re worried about smoke in your hair in a communal smoking room, you should perhaps stay away.


  1. Charles

    It’s somewhat curious, but I find that the older I get the fewer funerals I attend. Looking back over the years most of them were Anglican. (A notable exception was Lutheran and the pastor had been flown in from Westfalia especially for the event; excellent he was.) I’ve never been to a Roman Catholic funeral but what’s all this about dark suits? I assume you mean a lounge suit. I was brought up to believe that one went to a funeral in a morning jacket and in so far as I do go to the occasional one that’s the way. Old fashioned? Maybe, but perhaps respect is becoming old fashioned.

  2. Charles

    Interesting and entertaining, thanks Richard. Maybe two-thirds of the funerals I’m involved in feature much black, though not uniform (more patterned black and white amongst the ladies, or black with one slash of bright colour, say, a red scarf or bag.) Some of rest are a motley mix, because the family said don’t wear black, and my guess is some still do because they don’t know what else to wear, and some don’t. Some have dark, restrained clothes that are not necessarily black. Relatively few seem break completely with dark clothes. I almost always wear a boring dark navy suit, which seems generally to slip under the wire for both formalists and informalists, and just makes it clear that I’m not a funeral director. I haven’t seen an FD wearing other than the usual full rig. The informalist trend is growing, steadily rather than suddenly.

  3. Charles

    Many thanks, GM, for answering this impromptu mini-survey.

    And thanks, Michael, for mentioning an unfamiliar practice: I’m aware of morning coats being worn at traditional weddings but not funerals where dark lounge suits have been the norm of my own limited experience.

  4. Charles

    By default it’s a black fine pinstripe, white shirt and black tie. I accessorize with flowers or coloured ties on request. Did one in t-shirt, jeans and Converse basketball boots the other week. Had to rush from one crem in suit, get changed in control room next to chapel at next crem. Stripped down to underwear the penny drops – CCTV! YouTube here I come 🙂

  5. Charles

    Part of our conversation with the families we work with tends to revolve around what they would like us to wear. Generally they prefer traditional ‘mock Victorian’. It may not sit comfortably here…but they really do. Having said that…we do it rather more stylishly than some 🙂
    Even when the family specifically state informal clothing…that does not apply to us. Having said that, Keith has been asked to wear a bright waistcoat (its was red and had dragonflies on it) and we have had Keith as well as the drivers and bearers in disney ties supplied by the family; but these are exceptions. We do, however, always make a point of asking rather than assuming!

  6. Charles

    The problem with funerals is that there are often no formal invitations. Being the only person wearing black in a sea of colour can be uncomfortable. As Kermit said, ‘It’s not easy being green.’
    It’s great when the widow wears bright red and everyone else is wearing sombre colours. She’ll say, ‘He loved it when I wore this dress.’

      1. Charles

        More awkward if you’re the only one wearing colour. However, with immediate family probably the opposite. Imagine the widow being the only one in black.
        But when you add fancy dress to the mix, the odd mismatch of colours doesn’t seem so bad.
        Call me old-fashioned but I have a pet-hate for vicars who turn up in scruffy clothes which are then ‘hidden’ under a surplice. God sees everything.

  7. Charles

    Having delivered on of my wonderful willow coffins to the Funeral Director of the family’s choice, i was invited to the home of the deceased .We chatted lots and i was asked if i would attend the Funeral ,to be held at the Arbory Trusts Barton Woodland Site just outside cambridge.
    As i was in my working cloths,those who know me will be aware that my work cloths are indeed very colourful,I was asked to attend “just as you are”.
    Well i did change for the occasion into something fresher but still just as colourful…it was a wonderful summers day and the only black i saw was connected to the funeral director and staff and car.
    Maybe they were not asked,or chose not to wear colourful items,but they certainly looked “the odd ones out”
    After all is said ,the wishes of the family and the deceased should always be taken into consideration.

  8. Charles

    Sorry, Richard, my earlier note was a little tongue-in-cheek. It’s interesting, though, that these things go in cycles: there was a time when I seemed to go to quite a few funerals of friends’ parents and without collusion (or none that I remember) we all seemed to turn up in morning coats &c. The last funeral I went to was at All Saints, Fulham. I hadn’t known the deceased, I was there as a representative of an organisation to which he had belonged. So, not knowing what to expect I wore a dark lounge suit. Mistake. Most of the male contingent wore morning coats.
    Perhaps it really shouldn’t matter (and I can hear people saying that) but the other side of the coin is that it’s easy to get twitchy about the proprieties.

  9. Charles

    I have a little mantra when I’m in doubt, which is:
    ‘I’ve never regretted wearing black. ‘ There have been requests for colour but I’ve yet to attend one where everyone complied fully. Indeed at one where the star of the show had specified bright colours/no black – all her girl friends turned up as bright young things, as requested, while her black clad family looked on aghast. Perhaps it’s all tied up in ‘respect’ and ‘expectation’ and ‘what will people think.’

  10. Charles

    Michael, after a quick scan of Google Images, guests at Diana’s funeral wore lounge suits but guests at the Queen Mother’s more traditional state funeral wore morning coats, or uniforms. Images of guests at Margaret Thatcher’s funeral show a mix of morning dress and lounge suits, Mark Thatcher and Cameron in the former, and Blair in the latter (Blair’s suit was actually navy blue).

  11. Charles

    What an interesting discussion. Generally, people have a much clearer idea how to dress for any other sort of event. But with so many funerals now billed as celebrations of life, making a judgement in terms of mood, tone and sense of occasion has become well tricky, though colour code is a helpful indicator. Additionally, a good many attenders may be taking an hour or two off work and come in uniforms of all sorts — staff at the care home, for example. I recall a big AA funeral, and a whopping Mitie funeral, both of which demonstrated touchingly what an effort those people had made to be there.

  12. Charles

    We always take the lead from the family, recently a family stated no black the sons/grandsons/nephews all wore matching lilac shirts and ties so it would have been inappropriate for us to turn up in Black so I wore bright red jacket and white skirt with red flowers. I have a long traditional black coat that I wear if its a formal traditional funeral and a black satin coat with large silver roses around the base, so really it depends on the type of service and families wishes

  13. Charles

    I do yoga and embrace the concept of God consciousness. I have learned that in the main life is a continuum with no discrete positions and that there are many paths, so what is right for one is not going to be right for another. A lot depends on ones standpoint. I accept that my real conscious self is eternal and it is our limited “mortal” life that has died. So when I finally pass away, I also want it to be a celebration of my life, WITH NO BLACK. The respect is in action, solemnity, and meaning of a service..

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