How to Dress Respectfully For a Funeral, According to Fashion

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Whether you’re curious about general rules for what to wear to a funeral or you’re already shopping for a black funeral dress, you’re in the right place to gain clarity about appropriate attire. First and foremost, one’s goal should be to consider context and respect the given tone and social customs attached to the event. Fashion psychologist Dawnn Karen and author of Dress Your Best Life has coined a term called “fashion situational code switching,” in which people alternate between different styles depending on the context and social setting. In Karen’s theory, “switching” should be utilized in the event of a funeral, despite personal taste, so as to show courtesy to those in mourning. You may need to make a quick call so you have all the information you need to get dressed. “As a woman of color, culture is hugely important to me,” Karen says. “I’ve gone to Caribbean funerals — where you’re not supposed to wear all black because the event is a celebration of life — funerals in the Americas, political funerals, and high-profile funerals. You have to know the situation. Are you a young person attending a funeral of someone from an older generation? In that case, you might want to dress more conservatively.”

That being said, there’s still room to customize your look so you can show some personality, whether it’s with your shoes, a bag, or sentimental jewelry. Karen calls these “focal accessories,” or items that hold psychological value and may be worn repeatedly. “Perhaps it’s an heirloom or ring, or something capable of keeping you grounded and comforted when you’re in a setting that’s sad or anxiety-inducing,” she explains.

While these fundamental tips provide a foundation for curating your wardrobe, there’s a lot more to learn about dressing for a funeral, so that you appear classy and compassionate. Ahead, we’ve tapped three more fashion psychologists to break down the basics and guide us to a proper funeral outfit.

What to wear to a funeral

Start simple. Since black is generally considered appropriate, as it indicates desire for emotional protection (more on that ahead), a plain black dress without flounce or too much embellishment is usually an acceptable option. Slacks, black opaque tights, boots or loafers, and a black jacket are recommended, whereas anything that could potentially display “dopamine dressing” is not. Anabel Maldonado — founder and CEO of Psykhe, a platform that uses psychology to personalize an e-commerce shopping experience — warns against bold colors or patterns. “Bright hues and prints, such as florals or polka dots, are joyous in quality, and the service is a lament of a loss of life, so this is not a time to reflect joy,” she says.

Why do people wear black to funerals?

Black has been socially and culturally associated with grief and mourning in much of the Western world, and it’s considered traditional for funerals in many parts of Europe and North America. Fashion psychologist Shakaila Forbes-Bell and author of Big Dress Energy points to Edwardian-era Britain, when women wore the shade for a certain length of time depending upon how close they were to the departed. Similar “rules” were set in place in the United States during the 1800s, when some women wished to continue being identified as widows. Similarly, professor Carolyn Mair, originator of fashion psychology and author of The Psychology of Fashion, notes that during the Roman Empire, dark togas were worn as a symbol for grieving and reflection. And in the Victorian era, black jewelry became a popular way to remember loved ones.

The more straightforward reason for wearing black today is that it’s a sophisticated, powerful color, but it is also less individualizing. So, when a lot of people are wearing it, it can help them blend together as a group and feel less alone. As far as other colors go for funerals, Maldonado names white, neutrals, or mossy green, since these reflect nature and life cycles. Meanwhile, Mair and Karen note that other cultures emphasize different colors and their meanings (in South America, purple is also worn, and in Thailand, only the widows wear purple). Finally, the family or loved ones of the deceased may ask funeral attendees to wear specific shades in honor of a loved one’s vibrant personality. If this is not indicated on the invitation or announcement, it is polite to call.

Appropriate funeral dress code

As a general rule of thumb, Mair associates a funeral dress code with what you might wear for a job interview. This includes dark suits, jackets, modest dresses, skirts, or trousers paired with a sophisticated blouse, jacket, or coat. Still, Forbes-Bell and Maldonado highly suggest calling a family member to inquire about the dress code, though not in the final days leading up to the event, as they may be overwhelmed. Maldonado suggests gentle dialogue to clear up any uncertainty, such as: “I’d like to ensure that I respect the tone of the service by dressing appropriately — what dress code is recommended?”

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