Recently I had the opportunity to see the temporary exhibition “Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire” going on now through February 2015 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The exhibition demonstrates the aesthetic development and cultural implications of high fashion standards on the manner of dress during bereavement rituals as they evolved between 1815 and 1915.
We all grieve in our own way, but have you ever considered the expression of grief translated through fashion? We know to wear black to a funeral as a sign of respect, but once we leave, we are not required to express our grief in the clothing we wear on a daily basis. During the Victorian era, the clothing worn by individuals in mourning directly depicted which stage of grief they were in.
The length of mourning depended on your relationship to the deceased and the color and fabric used depended on what stage of mourning you were in. Women in deepest mourning, also known as full mourning, were expected to adopt a wardrobe made entirely of black crepe; a dull fabric without any sheen to reflect light. As time went on, the colour changed to grey, white and mauve, and the fabric changed to silk which had a more lustrous and reflective quality to it.
In the later part of the century, magazines began to demonstrate how to dress while mourning. The trends were set by royalty, which spread across the class lines. If an individual did not want to make their own mourning attire, one could easily purchase it through mourning ‘warehouses’ found all over European and American Cities. Mourning attire was, of course, still fashion, and with every passing season and decade trends fluctuated.
I loved the setup of this exhibition. On a circular platform, approximately 30 ensembles were displayed in chronological order, showing the progression of style, fabric and colour through time and throughout the stages of mourning. Many quotes outlined the humour found in light of the darkness, and despite being a morbid concept, it remained quite beautiful.
If you are in the area, I strongly urge you to go check this exhibition out in person where you will be able to see the details that went into these beautiful gowns. From restrained simplicity to ostentatious ornamentation, each gown had it’s own unique beauty.