Death Becomes Her. A Century of Mourning Attire
Surprisingly, and surprisingly not surprising, the recent fall costume exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art refashioned appreciation for mourning garments, a form of dress that no longer dominates world traditions. In “Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire,” visitors noticeably crowded around the soberly dressed mannequins housed in the confining space of the basement gallery. The gallery has recently been renamed the Anna Wintour Costume Center. Wintour is the celebrity editor-in-chief of Vogue and the museum’s chair for its annual fundraising gala, since 1995.
Attendees seemingly took as long to experience this unusual and smaller thematic display as the earlier expansive main floor blockbuster in the spring for couturier Charles James. Perhaps some necessary self-reflection and identification took place, as its subject is one that touches us all. This exhibition dealt not in bursts of color and iconoclastic design but rather the important subtleties of black and gray, the shadow colors that honor life’s end and our final rite of passage.
Just as the Charles James exhibition illuminated a portion of cultural history through fashion during the twentieth century, so did this display of clothing from the Victorian and Edwardian periods. For most of history, death struck humans early and often. Rituals developed over the world, and every culture has its way of marking the life cycles from which we all partake. Birth, marriage and death rituals purposely concentrate our minds on the significance of transiting the arc of life and memorialize the universality of human experience.
But within the costume center’s darkened space, the time frame was specific and its thirty spectral mannequins were tokens of a past that evinced an almost obsessive devotion to the many rules attached to public and private mourning and how these were woven into the fabric of everyday life. We have nothing remotely prescriptive
like it today. While one tradition has not been entirely dismantled—black is still the favored color of mourning—in other aspects of funerary occasions, dress has become so casual and colorful that T-shirts/shorts/and flip flops are considered to be just fine and not disrespectful to the departed.
“Death Becomes Her” follows the period from the 1830s to 1915. Average life expectancy was less then fifty and death in childbirth or as a child was common. Infant mortality was so ubiquitous that some parents did not name their children until their first year was reached. Disease and the Civil War only added greatly to grieving periods. A woman could always be in mourning clothes for her child, husband, parents, grandparents, and more distant family members. A husband, though, could leave mourning and remarry in as short as a month and was much less likely to be censured for doing so.
Not only her comportment demonstrated familial grief but also what a woman wore in public. Various societal conventions dictated what was appropriate during the grieving process. First, one wore all black, and then over time some white detailing was allowed; as more time passed, gray gained entry to the mourning palette. The final distinction was still visually somber but could flash something a bit more luxe, such as the exhibit’s silk dress embroidered with mauve sequins worn by Queen Alexandra when in half-mourning for Queen Victoria.
During deepest mourning, the cloth consisted of a light gauzed crinkled crepe with a matte finish. Later a bit more sparkle and sheen with silks, taffeta and moiré could be introduced. Bombazine was often used (a combination of wool and silk) as it kept black dyes the best. The dresses could be very beautiful and becoming with an elegance that also showed both dignified feminine grace as well as sexual appeal. Not yet among the dead and very much alive, women had to balance the difficult performance of combining decorous restraint with seductive allure to show themselves as available to males. Remarriage would secure their financial protection, a vital necessity for survival in the Victorian/Edwardian eras, as with most of human history.
While mourning dress was a visual symbol of grief and respect for the deceased, it also gave clues to the woman’s status and taste. Wealthy women could commission apparel from the House of Worth while those less fortunate took an existing dress and dyed it black. The few menswear showed the degree to which males of the time mostly dressed in dark, uniformly subdued fabrics anyway, so their attire in mourning scarcely changed.
The ensembles were fitted with gloves, hats, veils, and jewelry and illustrated how mourning progressed through its various prescribed phases. It was, of course, Queen Victoria who contributed so mightily to mourning practices. So over-the-top upset by her beloved husband Prince Albert’s death in 1861 the queen basically retired from all public life and wore black from that day forward to the end of her long reign and life. The exhibition showed one of her silk taffeta evening dresses, and unlike the other dresses which showed the fashionable tucked wasp waists, hers has none, an acknowledgment to her corsetless zaftig figure.
Black mourning dress may have been the color of sadness but when you wear something for two full years, as expected of a woman grieving the death of her husband, the concept has to take into account just how long you can tolerate keeping the visual performance static, especially since the times are always changing. They inevitably spawned sartorial nuances and the basic fashions could still be imitated and not abandoned. Women’s journals, like Harper’s Bazaar, reassured as to what to wear from head to toe. Therein were found what hairstyles were acceptable, which cloth to buy, where to find mourning rings and lockets, pins made of jet, onyx necklaces, handkerchiefs edged in black lace, and lovely black parasols. Stores arose catering to the death demand and some developed solely for the purpose of selling mourning textiles, bonnets, shawls, veils, and gloves.
The simplicity, starkness really, of the exhibition’s environment actually stimulated a lean-in experience. Closer examination revealed the variety and detail that black could bring to fabric, texture and patterning. It was a valuable lesson in how a severe limitation can be a guide leading to creative diversity. Exhilarating in its own way, it helped to sharpen and focus the senses, just as observing ritual, in this instance the expression of public and personal grief, was meant to achieve in practice. Communicating their sorrow without speaking of it, the silent mannequins eloquently demonstrated this profound emotion. Somehow cathartic, one leaves behind the somber basement gallery, its poignant symbols of mortality, and takes the stairway to the Met’s main floor, feeling happy to be alive and eager to meet a new day.