This October, The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Anna Wintour Costume Center will stage their first fall exhibition in seven years, exploring the aesthetic development and cultural implications of mourning fashions of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire will showcase approximately 30 ensembles organized chronologically from 1815 to 1915, which reveal the impact of high-fashion standards on the sartorial dictates of bereavement rituals as they evolved over a century. “The predominantly black palette of mourning dramatizes the evolution of period silhouettes and the increasing absorption of fashion ideals into this most codified of etiquettes,” notes Harold Koda, Curator in Charge of The Costume Institute, who is curating the exhibition with Jessica Regan, Assistant Curator. “Elaborate standards of mourning set by royalty spread across class lines via fashion magazines,” adds Ms. Regan, “and the prescribed clothing was readily available for purchase through mourning ‘warehouses’ that proliferated in European and American cities by mid-century.”
Although the sexual mores of that period couldn't be more different than today - “The veiled widow could elicit sympathy as well as predatory male advances," continues Koda. "As a woman of sexual experience without marital constraints, she was often imagined as a potential threat to the social order" - what is enlightening is the way the clothing, accessories, fabrics (mourning crape and corded silks) and colors (including shades of gray and mauve) will be used to illuminate the evolution of the calendar of bereavement and the cultural implications. Talk about a timely exhibition when you consider the way our society is dramatically rethinking the way we mourn. In the US, for example, a small but growing number are embracing the DIY funeral, using freezer packs instead of embalming, choosing an unvarnished wood box in lieu of a fancy casket, holding the viewing in a room at home and even doing the burial in the backyard. "In a society where seeing death and speaking of it is often taboo... they assert, death and mourning should be seen, smelled, touched and experienced." (image)
And yet, notes the author of Virtual Afterlives: Grieving the Dead in the 21st Century, in our increasingly secularized society, we need the comfort and guidance rituals provide. "We're seeing a disappearance of the rituals surrounding the dead," says Candi K. Cann. "We're not really supposed to grieve out in public, at work, in front of people. So you see this dichotomy of what's almost an obsession with death -- all the vampire movies and zombie movies -- but at the same time there's a disappearance of grief and grieving." Or perhaps it's just that the form is morphing. On Facebook, for example, there are in excess of 1 million pages for people who are dead. And tattoo tributes are on the rise, with the tattoo artist filling the role of grief counselor. "These people who get these certain kinds of tattoo tributes done, they often have no place else to go, no one else to talk about their mourning," continues Cann. "You're sitting there for hours with this person, you're sharing the story behind the tattoo. It's a deeply personal experience." (image)
Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire is on view from October 21, 2014 through February 1, 2015. Tix & info at MetMuseum.org.
- Lesley Scott
(image at top - Mourning Ensemble, 1870-1872, Black silk crape, black mousseline The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of the Brooklyn Museum, 2009; Gift of Martha Woodward Weber, 1930 (2009.300.633a,b) Veil, ca. 1875. Black silk crape. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Roi White, 1984 (1984.285.1) Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, by Karin Willis)