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These still early years of the twenty-first century have seen a rising fascination for the mourning practices of the nineteenth century. At a time when loved ones are memorialized via Facebook pages and bereavement leave is meted out according to employee handbooks, the strict codes of Victorian-era mourning attire might seem quaint, indulgent, or even “creepy” to a culture trained to “get over” one’s grief quickly. The idea of dressing in black for months at a time and lamenting one’s loss might seem cumbersome, unhealthy, or even false, and it is this perspective that the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute’s fall exhibit Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire seeks to address.
Death Becomes Her, which opened October 21, showcases American and British mourning dresses, accessories, prints, and fashion plates from 1815–1915. As the name makes clear, nineteenth-century mourning was, to a large extent, the domain of women, and to paraphrase the exhibit introduction, the image of the woman in full mourning dress was emblematic of the institution of bereavement (indeed, the exhibit only includes two examples of male mourning dress from opposite ends of the century). Thus, the exhibit analyzes the many silhouettes that a woman’s mourning might have taken over the course of the century, with a particular focus on the crossover between fashion and bereavement.
During the nineteenth century, mourning was a lengthy affair—particularly for women—and a lady was expected to stay in mourning anywhere from several months to two years, depending on her relation to the deceased. Deep mourning began with dresses made of or adorned with heavy black crape, and gave way, upon suitable passage of time, to black in other materials. Then, at the commencement of half-mourning, a lady might introduce white or gray accents, and would ultimately achieve lighter colors and finer, more fashionable fabrics.
Mourning attire was such a prevalent part of the day-to-day, that popular lady’s magazines included guidelines for what was both appropriate to indicate one’s bereavement and in keeping with the season’s fashions. The blurred lines between what was in vogue and what was respectful (and respectable) were highlighted most eloquently by the inclusion of a series of fashion plates in the Carl and Iris Barrel Apfel Gallery. The empty black outlines of the plate would be filled in with color, and two or three of the included images were of vibrant, festive hue. The last, however, had been colored in black with the caption that this particular dress was now suitable for a period of mourning.
Magazines and pamphlets also specified styles and shades for less traditional periods of mourning. The exhibit features, for instance, subdued half-mourning dresses worn, in America, in response to the casualties of the Civil War, and in England, the death of Prince Albert. Similarly, as divorce became less taboo toward the latter end of the century, new styles were designed to accommodate the death of a former husband, as Edith Wharton comments upon through the socialite Undine Marvell, following the death of her first husband in The Custom of the Country: “She had worn black for a few weeks—not quite mourning, but something decently regretful (the dress-makers were beginning to provide a special garb for such cases).”
However, the exhibit oft pointed out that though most were keen to dress appropriately to avoid giving offense, there were no hard and fast rules, and it would seem that like today’s plethora of fashion guides, no two were in perfect agreement. Therefore, much was left up to a lady’s sense of propriety and her own good judgment.
For an example of this, I look to Jane Eyre. Upon the suicide of their brother and subsequent terminal illness of their mother, Jane’s cousins Eliza and Georgiana Reed are described thusly:
There was something ascetic in [Eliza’s] look, which was augmented by the extreme plainness of a straight-skirted, black, stuff dress, a starched linen collar, hair combed away from the temples, and the nun-like ornament of a string of ebony beads and a crucifix. . . . The hue of [Georgiana’s] dress was black too; but its fashion was so different from her sister’s—so much more flowing and becoming—it looked as stylish as the other’s looked puritanical.
And so, two sisters—of the same social standing, and grieving in the same house—might prepare their mourning attire according to their own tastes: one adhering to fashion and the other to her own more ascetic standards.
And yet, though Eliza and Georgiana look the part, neither experiences the grief their attire conveys. Such is often the main argument of current and contemporary critics of the nineteenth century’s elaborate mourning attire—as were projected onto the walls of the Death Becomes Her exhibit. In letters, books, and essays, people of the time remarked that the strict adherence to looking the part of the bereaved masked a true indifference to the loss—and for many, mourning was certainly an opportunity to purchase new clothing and capture the attention and sympathies of society.
However, as always, one should not leap to generalizations, nor should we condemn period women as opportunists of fashion or their customs as insincere. For many ladies, going through the motions of creating one’s mourning—whether it be purchased from the new “warehouses” that catered to the market, or was lovingly put together by trimming and dying old articles—was a cathartic and necessary part of the grieving process, and as such it should not be dismissed.
Rather opposite to Georgiana Reed and Undine Marvell, Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford provides an endearing description of a poor but genteel lady reworking her hat into a mourning bonnet, following the death of a member of the community: “That afternoon Miss Jenkyns sent out for a yard of black crape, and employed herself busily in trimming the little black silk bonnet I have spoken about. When it was finished she put it on, and looked at us for approval—admiration she despised. . . . I no sooner saw the bonnet than I was reminded of a helmet; and in that hybrid bonnet, half helmet, half jockey-cap, did Miss Jenkyns attend Captain Brown’s funeral . . .” Jenkyns, who cares not a fig for fashion, does seek to adhere to the community’s mourning customs as a symbol of her respect, and though her attempts look comical, her sorrow and sympathy are sincere.
This seems a fitting sentiment on which to end. Then, as is true today, there will always be individuals who strictly follow the ideals of fashion, those who eschew them completely, and those who fall somewhere in between. And then, as now, there will always be those who criticize, a “they” whose approbation the rules of fashion hope to obtain. And yet, when in mourning, it is the showing of respect that counts, and so long as no offense is intended, one might dress according to one’s own set of rules.
Death Becomes Her features American and British-made mourning dresses, among others, from the period 1815–1915, and from the most humble American lady to Queen Victoria herself. The mannequins have been exquisitely arranged so as to convey a sense of the lifelike, and each dress is accompanied by a wig that recreates popular hairstyles of the time. Other highlights include the Gibson series A Widow and Her Friends, a child’s mourning dress, and a sampling of hair jewelry, memento mori photographs, and more.
“Death Becomes Her” will be on display in the Anna Wintour Costume Center at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until February 1, and is included with the regular admission. For those intrigued by fashion, history, literature, and/or the macabre, I heartily recommend this stunning and thought-provoking exhibit.
Constance Renfrow's fiction has appeared in such places as Red Earth Review, Mud Season Review, Petrichor Machine, and Cabildo Quarterly. Her first book, Songs of My Selfie, an anthology of millennial fiction, was a 2016 IndieFAB finalist. She recently received her MFA in fiction from Pacific University and is completing her first novel.