If you’ve ever worn a uniform, you know the appeal of fashion rules. The absence of sartorial choice can be a great relief, especially during the bewilderment of grief. And, really, what could be simpler than putting on a black outfit and turning to more important matters?
If only it were so easy. Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire, on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, shows that dressing for respectable mourning in the nineteenth-century was anything but simple. Grief, like so much else during this period, was codified into a set of socially acceptable behaviors and rituals and, as a result, the private mourning process became a public measure of social status.
The thirty ensembles on display are a vision of black. From a modern perspective, they look dark, goth, edgy and mysterious, which is a big part of the show’s allure. Here are some other considerations to keep in mind:
Mourning was women’s work.
It fell to the women to adhere to the proscribed mourning rituals. Her comportment represented the entire family from both a social and economic perspective. She was responsible for outfitting every family member in appropriate mourning wear. While husbands and children wore mourning as well, all eyes were on her, following her progress from the initial gowns of heavy black matte crape through to later ensembles of silks and secondary colors.
Mourning was expensive.
Mourning could be a matter of months or years, requiring entirely new wardrobes for each member of the family. “Those who could not afford the change of dress often altered and dyed their regular garments black. The amount of black to be worn was dictated by several different phases of mourning; full mourning ensembles were solid black while half mourning allowed the wearer to add a small amount of white or purple.”* Half mourning signified a subsiding of grief and preparedness to rejoin the world.
Mourning was lucrative.
Mourning was firmly established as a ritual in the nineteenth century. The emergence of a middle class striving for upward mobility in this period brought with it an insatiable desire for guidance on proper deportment and dress in all matters, including mourning. New businesses sprung up to capitalize on this demand, from mourning jewelry to fabric mills specializing in production of mourning crape, and ultimately to emporiums like Jay’s Mourning Warehouse. Read more about Jay’s here.
While formalized mourning could serve a useful purpose, such as actually helping to process grief, or even, as noted in one memorable quote, eliminating the need to advertise for a husband, it was constraining. Expense aside, it went on too long, often outlasting any true feelings of grief and restricting social engagement.
Mourning attire could be chic.
Black dye was expensive, so clothing of this color signified success and chic long before twenty-first century urbanites adopted it as a daily uniform. Fashionable mourning attire incorporated up to date silhouettes and ornamentation. Believe it or not, because these elegant sequined evening gowns above are in the proscribed half mourning colors of mauve and grey they are considered entirely appropriate. Note: the photo on the left, taken in the gallery, show the colors of these gowns might have appeared in the lighting of the time.
No discussion of mourning would be complete without mention of England’s Queen Victoria, whose public expression of grief for her beloved husband, Prince Albert, set the standard for all others to follow. This dress is just one from what must have been her considerable mourning trousseau: Victoria wore mourning attire for forty years, from the time of Alberts death in 1861 until her own in 1901. Formalized mourning was on the decline in the early part of the twentieth-century and effectively came to an end with the Great War (World War I).
This elegant show lends itself to contemplation. The ensembles are chronologically arranged in one large gallery. The mannequins are set in the center of the gallery in groupings that add depth and contrast to each ensemble. The wall space is used to display projected quotes from the time period that reflect real attitudes towards mourning attire. Every so often the quotes change, offering new context for each display. A smaller gallery displays jewelry, mourning artwork, and period magazine commentary.
It’s too bad that more investment has not been made into an exhibition website. The information online is cursory, yet many of the ensembles are from the museum’s own collection so there is no reason for them not to be included individually as links on the exhibition site. This is the Costume Institute’s first Fall show in some time so perhaps the leaner approach was intentional. But it reads more as an out-of-character oversight from a museum that is usually so generous and comprehensive with its online resources. [Update: I found a more comprehensive page of ensembles by searching for “Gallery 980” if you are curious.]
Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire delivers an impressive depth of information and beauty in a small package. It’s so nice to view a smart show that is not exhausting to visit. See it at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through February 1, 2015.
Photo of 2 sequined evening gowns by Daphne Nash
All other photos © The Metropolitan Museum of Art