When did Victorian fashion come to be regarded as macabre?

The classic haunted house is a big, badly-maintained Victorian mansion (specifically, some form of Gothic Revival), a giant architectural complexity filled with ghosts dressed like middle-class Britons circa 1880. The classic haunted cemetery is obviously one with elaborate Neoclassical tombs and headstones you could use in coffee tables.

This has been the case at least since 1938, when Charles Addams introduced his then-unnamed family as a series of one-shot single panel cartoons in the New Yorker and other magazines. The Gothic fashion of the 1970s and afterwards that sprang out of Punk obviously reinforced the ‘Victorian is creepy’ notion but it certainly did not originate it. In between, innumerable movies and cartoons all did their part to paint Victoriana as macabre. (Walt Disney’s Haunted Mansion springs to mind, for example.)

So, when was the Victorian era picked to be the creepy one?

Maybe because it’s the era you’re most likely to have photographs of “dead people” that are old enough to be alien to you from? Like, pictures of my grandmother aren’t weird, because I remember her - they’re sweetly old-fashioned, from the 30’s. Pictures of her mother and her mother are kinda creepy because you didn’t know them, and they wear clothes that are actively “weird”, plus the photographs don’t look like “normal” photographs. But they’re not so old as to not have photographs - other portraits wouldn’t seem as odd.

You answered it: because of Charles Addams. He used the Victorian settings to create macabre jokes and the image remained.

Prior to Addams, macabre settings were usually castles (see the movies of Frankenstein and Dracula.

The Victorians were a little macabre, themselves, no? Death portraits? Heavy emphasis on mourning protocol? Locks of one’s deceased beloved’s hair worn in lockets?

I’d guess it came from Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations. You know, Miss Havisham quietly insane in that mouldering old house.

It’s also important to note that the late Victorian culture was pretty damn creepy even before Charles Addams came along, at least when you look at it from modern-day perspective.

Since Queen Victoria spent the latter half of her reign in mourning, the idea of public mourning became highly ritualised. There was a very specific dress code designated for female relatives (especially widows), which dictated the clothing, accessories and fabrics to be worn for the length of their public mourning period. Beyond that, some of the more devoted would commission (or create) mementoes made from bones/teeth/hair of dead loved ones - rings containing or made from hair were very popular.

Also, Victorian England was one of the major centres for the Spiritualist movement. It was very fashionable in the middle and upper classes to invite friends over for a seance, and there was a great deal of enthusiasm for anything that involved spirits or ghosts.

Don’t forget that this period also produced some of the most important classics in the gothic horror genre. Beyond *Frankenstein *and Dracula, you’ve also got the collected works of Edgar Allen Poe, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Jane Eyre and The Picture of Dorian Grey, among others.

Mark Twain had Huckleberry Finn satirizeVictorian literary trends toward the lachrymose:

I think it’s this - not only the works themselves, but also their cinematic treatments draw on Victorian motifs, in their black-besuited protagonists and floaty-dress-wearing damsels in distress. The Gothic literary genre was also by no means confined to the Victorian era but is strongly associated with it, and in terms of costume, I doubt a lot of people actually could draw firm lines between late Georgian or Regency and early Victorian, or Late Victorian and Edwardian. So dark suits, capes, hansom cabs, foggy streets, the American take on Gothic revival…these all spell “macabre” to us

In the Victorian era itself pretty much. During that time period, there was a huge boom in interest (and exploiting that interest) in ‘supernaturalism’: tarot readings, ouija boards, mediums, table rappings, and a lot of the stuff that gets called ‘New Age’ nowadays. Holding seances and attempting to contact disembodied spirits was a popular past-time in middle class parlors.

Also, many of the archetypal gothic horror stories were written in that time: “the Turn of the Screw”, “Dracula” and “Carmilla” are all Victorian stories. They typically had very sexual subtexts, and a lot of their popular appeal hinged on disguised erotic imagery, that gets lost in ‘modernized’ versions of the stories.

If I’m not mistaken, Victorian times were also when taxidermy came into its own. For a while having a variety of stuffed and mounted objects was the fashion, and now in 20/20 hindsight looks Norman Bates-ish.


Dracula was written in Victoria’s reign. As was Dr Jeckyl/Mr Hyde. People think A Chrstmas Carol is a holiday tale, but the novel is damn creepy.

Wasn’t Rio penned in that era, by a certain Gentleman under the nom de plume of “Duran Duran?”

I wonder how much certain mind-altering substances that were then in vogue during the era (e.g., absinthe and opium) may have affected the macabre depictions in art and literature.

It kinda picked itself. A fascinating story, which actually begins in the 18th Century. From The City in Mind, by James Howard Kunstler, chapter on London:

*Not to be confused with Bergholt Stuttley Johnson.


The late Victorian Era was indeed creepy-widows wore black (and most men over 25 wore black as well), and the Victorian era had a lot od stories involving death, funerals, and moldering old mansions. I think it had a lo to do with the supression of sexuality (Victoria never remarried), and spend years building monuments to Prince Albert.
Tlate Edward Gorey useda lot of creepy Victorian themes-what was his obsesion with those enormous pot-belied urns?

Lots of grave robbing going on then, and also the time of Dr Jeckyll Mr Hyde and Jack the Ripper.

Well, heck, there’s lots of grave robbing going on now!

Or is that just me?

I prefer the term “resurrectionist”.

I would trace it to tabloid coverage of the Whitechapel murders. Jack the Ripper was usually depicted as a shadowy guy in a top hat and fancy cane. Pretty creepy.