Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire
Written by: Luke Marshall Good, AAS Fashion Design Student
I love death.
Let me rephrase that: I love the events in life, whatever the reasons, that connect people. I admire the fortitude necessary of the spirit to face pain and suffering. I love considering artistic expressions whose goals are to assist an individual coping with loss. I have an incredibly high regard for the very personal ways that individuals preserve affections and memories. I love the cultural creation of symbolism and meaning. I love the tingle of the spine when confronted by the macabre. I love the intention of a black silhouette.
Considering all of this, I immensely enjoyed “Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire,” the current Costume Institute exhibit at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, running through February 1st, 2015.
The exhibit examines the cultural significance, as well as the design, of women’s mourning dress from 1815 to 1915. On view are some 30 head-to-toe looks, many of which are being seen for the first time, including menswear, childrenswear, and, perhaps most notable, clothing worn by Queen Victoria and Queen Alexandra. It is easy to recognize the role the former played in defining how women were expected to express mourning as Victoria remained in mourning after the death of Prince Albert in 1861 for the rest of her life, even going so far as to have his clothing laid out every day as if he were still alive.
The exhibit also provides details of the calendar of mourning for women and the intricacies of mourning attire as a cultural etiquette that proved an individual’s social status, economic standing, and level of respectability. It is difficult, being someone very much of the 21st century, to imagine the necessity (or rather, the obligation) a woman would have felt in dressing for years to mourn the death of a loved one, and to adhere to the culturally determined stages of mourning dress as the respectability of her name and entire family depended on it.
photos: Luke Marshall Good
Also shown are remarkable accessories such as hats and parasols, as well as mourning jewelry that tenderly features the very hair of the deceased. While the majority of the pieces feature small locks simply set in lockets, pins, and rings, one large thick band bracelet is made entirely of braided hair.
On a much lighter and wittier note, the exhibit also features a series of satirical illustrations by Charles Dana Gibson that ran in Life Magazine between 1900 and 1901 called “A Widow and Her Friends.” The narrative follows a young widow as she struggles to come to terms with societal expectations and attitudes toward her, ending with her joining a convent and still unable to escape the unwanted attention of men as a sexually alluring and knowing woman, regardless of the reason for her being newly single and eligible again for marriage.
If you have yet to view the exhibit, this Friday, November 21st may be the best time to attend as the co-curator, Jessica Regan, will be giving a lecture entitled “Women in Black: Fashioning Mourning in the 19th Century” at 4 PM.
Be certain to wear all black and jewelry made of someone else’s hair.
Luke Marshall Good is a current AAS Fashion Design student originally from Oregon. He previously studied English Literature and Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Oregon before moving to San Francisco, where he worked at Levi Strauss & CO and assisted the director of Unspeakable Projects, a gallery that focuses its attention on emerging artists. He moved to New York City in January of this year to study at Parsons. He creates costumes for and styles the lead singer of the Bay Area band Rich Girls and continues to write poetry in any spare time available.
photo: Brandy Stone
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