This year I spent Halloween at a favourite place, the Met (you thought I was going to say a cemetery, didn't you?), where there were a series of activities including performances by a magician, drawing by candlelight at the Temple of Dendur, and readings of Edgar Allan Poe. The biggest attraction was a very fitting exhibit, "Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire,” featuring American and British mourning wear from 1815 to 1915.
The exhibit was crowded with visitors dressed up in all manner of costumes, including some very impressive Victorian outfits, and everyone’s favourite street photographer, Bill Cunningham, was there, snapping away while people took photos of him. It was all a bit too much so I went back another day to view the exhibit properly.
In the 19th-century, people had a different relationship with death than we do now. The high infant mortality rate and shorter life expectancy for adults meant that death was a constant reality for most people. The living chose to remember their dead in various ways: jewelry was fashioned out of the hair of the departed, photos were taken with the actual dead (creepy), and specific clothing was worn.
The Victorians, with their strict code of conduct, naturally created a whole industry around mourning wear with rules on what to wear and for how long based on the mourner and the deceased. The death of a parent or child called for one year whereas the death of a sibling was just six months. The longest time was reserved for husbands with widows expected to mourn for two years.
Mourning itself was broken into four stages. Full mourning, which was what widows were expected to do for a year and a day, involved wearing all black including loads of dull crepe (no shiny materials allowed). Then came second mourning, which was less severe than full with some of the heavy crepe removed from outfits. Widows would observe this stage for nine months. Ordinary mourning saw the removal of crepe all together although clothes remained black. For a mourner like a sister, attending a ball was allowed. And finally the fourth stage, half mourning, which allowed mourners to forgo black in lieu of mauve, purple, and gray. Men had it much easier, often getting away with just adding a black tie and gloves to their usual dark suits. They were also only required to observe mourning for three months.
For widows, the donning of mourning wear could send out mixed messages. While a widow's black garb signified a loyal wife showing respect for her departed husband it also said to men that here was a sexually experienced woman who might have a huge fortune at her disposal. Included in the exhibit is an amusing series of illustrations by Charles Dana Gibson called “A Widow and Her Friends” from 1900 in which a young, attractive widow is hounded by interested suitors and finally winds up joining a nunnery to get away from them.
British evening dress of black moiré silk, lace, and jet, circa 1861.
There are 30 ensembles on display (including a few for men and children) and a selection of accessories and jewelry. The gowns run the gamut from demur and plain to downright glamorous. The French designed ones (surprise, surprise) seem the most fashionable like a silk gown by Charlotte Duclos (1910-12) that features glass beading while a British evening dress circa 1861 made of moiré silk has the most exquisite pattern woven into what appears at first to be solid black. Another gown of note is an American wedding gown from 1868 done in gray to acknowledge those who had died in the Civil War.
For the wealthy, mourning clothes for the most part followed the latest trends save for the colour. It’s easy to see how a pretty woman with means might have looked fetching in an off-the-shoulder black evening gown. Consuelo Vanderbilt’s husband, the Duke of Marlborough, upon seeing her in mourning wear for Queen Victoria, remarked, “If I die, I see you will not remain a widow for long” (their unhappy marriage ended in divorce before that could happen).
And speaking of Victoria, included in the exhibit are gowns worn by two very different queens. Queen Victoria famously wore mourning wear for the rest of her life after the death of her beloved Prince Albert. A gown from 1894-5, some 30 years after Albert’s death, shows the Queen still wearing solid black. Nearby are two half-mourning gowns owned by Queen Alexandra, Victoria’s daughter-in-law. Designed in 1902 by Henriette Favre (again, the French) in two shades of purple, they are light and sparkly, a far cry from Victoria's heavy black.
World War I put an end to mourning wear. With so many men and boys dying, it was seen as self-serving to put on such a public show of grief. While people still wear black to funerals today, the age of mourning wear ended with the arrival of the modern age.
“Death Becomes Her” is at the Met through February 1, 2015. For more information, visit here. Photos: Metropolitan Museum of Art.