Widow's weeds are garments that are worn during a period of mourning. Many people think of the Victorian era in England when they hear the term because this era was marked by very rigid and distinctive mourning practices. In most modern societies, people do not mourn publicly in the same ways that they did historically, and the concept of wearing these garments is a bit of an anachronism.
The term is also used more generally to describe the cultural rituals associated with death, particularly the death of a spouse. Historically, people might say “she's still in widow's weeds” to refer to someone who was still mourning a spouse, whether or not she wore full mourning dress. Most cultures have their own unique rituals that are designed to help people cope with death; most of these mourning rituals are divided into stages which allow people to slowly re-enter the world.
In the Victorian era, the rules for mourning were quite complex, especially for widows. Widows were expected to remain in full mourning for a year and day, after which they would transition through various stages of partial mourning. During the full mourning period, widows wore simple clothing in muted colors, with upper class women wearing black only, transitioning to purples, grays, and blues once they entered the period of half mourning.
The “weeds” in the term comes from the Old English waed, which means “garment.” Widow's weeds have several defining characteristics, including dark or muted colors and simple designs. Classically, women did not wear heavily decorated garments either, removing things like superfluous embroidery and lace. The clothing often included long veils, as well, and in the first year, women wore no jewelry.
The wearing of widow's weeds would have instantly distinguished a widow from those around her, making her state very obvious. It was also a class symbol, as only the very wealthy could afford full mourning, which involved an entirely new wardrobe and a general withdrawal from society. Modern mourning dress is generally worn for only a brief period of time, and it may not necessarily be entirely new; any sort of somber dress is appropriate today in many regions of the world.
In some cultures, the tradition of wearing widow's weeds for extended periods of time persists. In some Catholic countries, for example, widows may choose to wear black for the rest of their lives, especially in very rural, traditional areas. In others, the process of slowly transitioning to more normal garments is an important step in the grieving process, acknowledging the sadness of a death and slowly working through it.