Mourning in NYC: ‘Death Becomes Her’ Exhibition at the Met


The Victorians viewed mourning attire with an unrestrained obsession that has been unparalleled in society since. It took hold following the death of Prince Albert when Queen Victoria stepped out of public view, and wore her “widow’s weeds” until her own death.

The Metropolitan of Art’s Anna Wintour Costume Center presents Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire from October 21, 2014 through February 1, 2015. The exhibition will survey the aesthetic transformation and cultural significations of mourning dress of the 19th and 20th centuries through high-fashion silhouettes. The ensembles, many of which have never been exhibited before, will unveil the effect of high-fashion principles on the sartorial edicts of bereavement rituals as they developed over two centuries.

Old dictates and conventions of dress were strictly observed. Throughout the period, the dramatic “black dress”ensemble  was considered  an invaluable “standby” and was worn on ceremonial occasions including bereavement. The exhibition highlights dark-color schemes, full-length corseted dresses, sometimes with long trains and exquisite veils, wide-brimmed hats, scarves and even umbrellas.

The black color was intensified by giving the fabric a lackluster surface so that fabrics such as corded silks, crepe and mousseline, could not reflect light.  By the 1870s, morality demanded a dress of paramatta (light, twilled fabric) sheathed with crape to “within an inch or two of the waist.”

For the first nine months, tucks were not acceptable in the crape, then two were permitted after the specified waiting  period. Once the widow “slighted her mourning,” she adopted a black silk dress heavily trimmed with crape for six months. Subsequently, the crape was lessened, and jet was then permissible. While the death of a husband meant two years of colorless garb, it was deemed “much better taste to wear half-mourning for at least six months more.” The majority of widows never wore colors again.

The loss of a child was no different and warranted one year of deathly decorum. In a period of high mortality, women could go much of their adult lives dressed in mourning attire. Not only did the women of the era don mourning attire, but children and men did as well, except the same restrictive formality was not exercised.


Harold Koda, curator in charge of the Costume Institute noted, “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.” Therefore, the “veiled widow” could simultaneously draw out compassion and attract desirous pursuits. “As a woman of sexual experience without marital constraints, she was often imagined as a potential threat to the social order,” noted Hoda.

The mourning ritual was not limited to black attire, but an entire industry revolved around black crape, the predominant cloth used for “widow’s weeds” and Whitby jet. These stones were incorporated into adornments that imparted a glimmer of light on the heavy, cumbersome mourning ensemble.

Chronologically organized, the exhibition features mourning attires from 1815 to 1915, primarily from the Institute’s collection, and will introduce Queen Alexandra and Queen Victoria’s mourning gowns. The exhibit will explore the progression of appropriate bereavement fabrics from corded silks and mourning crape, to the subsequent allowance of colors – mauve and gray. Costumes will span from “restrained simplicity” to “ostentatious ornamentation.” Historic photographs and daguerreotypes will further illustrate the period.

The established criterions of mourning accoutrement saw no socio-economic distinction and proliferated across the social class. The prescribed vestures were easily obtained “through mourning warehouses” that had flourished throughout cities in America and Europe. However, the poorer widows either spent what little money they had for the proper mourning wear or they dyed a few of their dresses black.

Victorian and Edwardian women were obligated to wear the segregating raiments. These mourning fashions also restricted women of potential independence, hidden behind their own shrouds. What was meant for shielding a tear-stained face, a widow draped in veils complied with the Victorians’ notion that “a good death was a beautiful one.”

The Death Becomes Her exhibition presents the different mourning stages and the various textiles that were obligatory in line with the edicts of mourning etiquette in the Victorian and Edwardian period. For Koda, the exhibit’s premise is not macabre but rather the convergence of the “sobering and quite poignant narrative about dealing with grief,” and concurrently “a really chic fashion story.”

By Dawn Levesque

English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century
Marie Claire UK
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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