Whether we have been invited to attend the funeral of a friend or have organised a service for a person close to us, the practical question of what we should wear for the occasion can be a difficult one. Making decisions regarding our funeral clothes can be stressful, and choosing an outfit for a funeral can represent another task on the to-do list we’d rather not face. With some advice and reassurance, however, the choice can become easier.
The tradition of funeral clothes
In our part of the world, it is traditional to wear black at a funeral, with smart, sombre attire often considered to be the most respectful choice. According to historians, the practice of wearing black to signify mourning was spread throughout the West by the Romans, who would wear a dark-coloured toga (called a toga pulla) when they were bereaved.
The tradition evolved throughout the intervening centuries from widows wearing black caps in the Middle Ages to the elaborate displays of grief of the Victorian era, perhaps most vividly personified by Queen Victoria (who, after the death of her husband, wore black for the rest of her life).
For those of us who grew up in this culture, the association between black clothing and funeral rites can feel so innate that any deviation can seem odd to us. However, ideas concerning what’s appropriate to wear at funerals are not universal, and are changing with time.
In Brazil, for example, many devout Catholics also wear purple – which is considered a deeply spiritual colour – alongside black while marking the loss of a loved one, while white is the colour of mourning in many parts of East Asia. What’s more, while many still favour the traditional black in the UK, funerals are evolving, and smart, dark attire is no longer a given.
Choosing an outfit for a funeral
Like many of the seemingly small decisions at important moments in our lives, choosing an outfit for a funeral can become an anxious process – growing in our minds to encompass more than may rationally make sense, and acting as a nexus for other worries and feelings.
One of the difficulties people face – especially if they are prone to overthinking – is that the etiquette of funeral wear may feel unfathomable, and getting it “wrong” is a real source of concern. This was aptly illustrated in the popular comedy series Fleabag, where the main character is mortified to realise she looks glowing and stylish at the funeral of her mother, fearing she will be judged for appearing so well and put together.
The important thing to remember is that people are kind and understanding. It is unlikely, unless clothing is deliberately made a special part of the day, that anyone will register or notice what you are wearing on any thoughtful level. It can be easy to channel our anxieties into external choices and find ourselves agonising over small things, but if you express your concerns to a friend or loved one, we are sure they will help.
Ensure you abide by any stated dress code
Funerals, and the time around them, are often highly emotional – but they can also be a way to celebrate a life as well as mourn a loss. As services become less traditional and more personal, the strict codes and expectations around funeral wear have begun to ease. In some cases, people even do their best to ensure a funeral doesn’t feel like a sombre occasion, requesting everything from brightly coloured clothes to fun accessories.
If the person who has passed, or their closest family, has outlined a particular dress code for their funeral, trying your best to dress accordingly is a generous and respectful action that is sure to be appreciated. In many ways a dress code can be extremely helpful, as it takes much of the decision-making out of your hands – you simply have to go with the flow.
Choose an outfit you feel comfortable in
It’s likely that you will spend most of the day in what you’ve chosen to wear for a funeral (particularly if you are attending a wake or gathering after the service) so it’s really important that you don’t feel uncomfortable. Shoes that pinch, too-tight jackets, scratchy collars or anything that makes you uneasy in your own skin can have an impact on how you experience the day, so double-checking everything feels nice to wear is important.
If the clothing requirements are traditional but you don’t like wearing black, you can look at dark grey or blue funeral outfits. Similarly, if you are a man or woman who feels uncomfortable in a suit or business wear, don’t feel too confined by rigid ideas about what you should wear to a funeral. A large variety of styles and fits can be perfectly appropriate as long as they are sensitively chosen.
For example, rather than a formal jacket and pencil skirt, you could choose a long black dress with a loose waistband, or pick out a smart but airy linen shirt and chinos rather than a three-piece suit. This is particularly important if the funeral is taking place on a hot day, where full formalwear could end up feeling oppressive.
It’s a cliche, but being kind to yourself when you are experiencing grief is hugely important, and a large part of this is minimising stress. Anyone who has found themselves in the position of having to buy funeral clothes because there is nothing quite right in the wardrobe is likely to know that it is not the most pleasant shopping experience, especially if you are struggling to find something or the shops are overwhelming and busy.
If things are getting stressful when choosing a dress, suit or outfit suitable for a funeral, take a step back from the situation. Even just a few moments somewhere quiet can help you collect your thoughts, and pull the lever on accelerating anxiety.
It can also help to ask for support. Anyone working in a clothing shop will know exactly where things are and can assist you in finding the right sort of thing, saving you the potentially stressful situation of looking and feeling under time pressure. You can even ask someone who knows you well to choose for you, making your only task trying things on in the changing room.
By following the dress code, picking something that makes you feel comfortable and keeping stress at a minimum, choosing the right outfit for a funeral can get easier, and help you feel better on the day itself.