Grief hit what may be its peak of glamor between 1815 and 1915. The devastating losses of the Civil War, suppression of women’s rights, and Victorian and Edwardian affinity for the macabre resulted in generations of widows spending years in their dour “weeds.” But that didn’t mean the dark designs were unfashionable, as it could take a lot of money to look suitably sad. Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire, which opened last month at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s recently christened Anna Wintour Costume Center, explores chronologically the clothing of death.
The only corpse you’ll find in the exhibition is hidden behind a black veil, a fragile daguerreotype from 1850. The postmortem portrait shows a baby’s body posed as if in sleep. Even as a grim object of memorial, the details on the photograph are beautifully delicate. Nearby, the ghostly pale mannequins with their colorless wigs are assembled around the main gallery, soundtracked by a recording of the London Symphony Orchestra playing an 1893 Gabriel Fauré requiem. Decked out in dark costumes, they are also most exquisite in their details — their lace touches, their drapery, their adorned cuffs, their jet jewelry — the main option for embellishment on the required uniform. Black had already been established in the Middle Ages as the color of the grave, but new technology allowed its mass production, and the rise of etiquette and fashion magazines gave the trend a pressuring voice. The black silk crape that most of the garments were cut from was practically a mutilation of the most delicate of fabrics, taking away silk’s softness and drowning it with huge amounts of the newly available black dye. It was something of a status symbol to be able to afford the specific fabric; less fortunate widows had to dye their existing clothes themselves and hope the color didn’t fade too much.
And it’s the details in the stories of mourning attire that give the somber, static exhibition its life. For example, the half-mourning wedding dress of a Civil War bride who, although she didn’t lose anyone in the war, chose the gray and black ensemble as part of a country-wide state of mourning. On the other end of the style spectrum are a pair of elaborate evening gowns by couturière Henriette Favre, worn by Queen Alexandra a year after the death of Queen Victoria (herself a great icon of mourning, also represented in the show by one of her austere outfits). The gowns are a barely sober fashion choice of mauve sequins for a lady emerging from total mourning. And the exhibition is overall about the restrictions and then loosening standards of mourning ended in the United States and Great Britain by World War I, when women were finally supporting the war effort through the workforce rather than as its army of sorrow.
The smaller side gallery of Death Becomes Her offers artifacts of the time period — including that postmortem photograph, a hat decorated with a dead bird, fashion plates showing how mourning stayed in line with current tastes, and reflections of the difficult social position of the widow. Men didn’t go into mourning for the lengths of time that women did, and women were often expected to mourn not just their husbands, but all immediate and even extended family, and condemned as improper if they didn’t. A 1900-01 series of illustrations by Charles Dana Gibson for LIFE magazine satirize a newly widowed young lady attempting to balance the attraction and vulnerability of her position, concluding with her joining a convent.
Recently, the New York Times included Death Becomes Her in a wider piece on “why in recent months many Americans have suspended their dread of the D word to indulge a romance with the Reaper.” While timed conveniently with Halloween, the exhibition may seem to be part of a broader embrace of our mortality, but it may be just as much a detachment. I have been giving cemetery tours in New York City for the past three years, and death even in these places feels much more dislodged from the center of our daily lives. We don’t experience it with the same immediacy as the women who wore these mourning gowns.
Death Becomes Her is also in a way about this detachment of the color black from its morbid associations. As a 1879 Harper’s Bazaar quote quips, wearing black would once “cause the wearer to be classed among the dangerously eccentric women.” At the exhibition’s media preview, the entire crowd seemed to be dressed to match the brooding color palette, the silhouettes different, but the color has stayed more in fashion than its fatal associations.
Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire continues at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 5th Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through February 1.