Evening dress, 1902. All photos courtesy the Met.
For the Victorians, a woman in mourning was a contradictory figure—an object of sympathy and pity, but also often seen as sexually appealing. Victorian women were well aware of the contradiction: "There is a charm and fascination in the manner and conversation of a widow which is known and appreciated by the other sex," wrote Martha Louise Rayne in her 1881 book Gems of Deportment and Hints on Etiquette.
And after being told the mourning clothes she wore for her brother looked becoming on her, a Tennessee teenager named Nannie Haskins wrote in her diary in 1863: "Becomes the fiddlestick. What do I care whether it becomes me or not? I don't wear black because it becomes me . . . I wear mourning because it corresponds with my feelings."
Both quotes are included in the Metropolitan Museum of Art's new Costume Center exhibit, "Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire." The title plays on this inherent contradiction: Most of us see death as an unwelcome aspect of life, and yet there is something undeniably glamorous about mourning garb.
A Charles Dana Gibson illustration from 1900
The allure isn't perverse: as a glance over any fashion show audience or New York subway car will tell you, black is chic. Long veils seem mysterious, and bling is fetchingly understated when formed of black-only jewels. And Victorian clothing, which can appear excessively ornate to the modern eye, looks smooth and elegant rendered in a monochromatic palette. Though it's far from our spray-tanned and digitally enhanced ideals of modern beauty, Victorian mourning wear is still a potent blend of death, sex, and restrained femininity.
At the Met, thirty ensembles—complete with gloves, hats, and jewelry—hang on ghostly, white-haired mannequins arrayed in a stark white space. A small second room offers a selection of accessories (including a gorgeous black silk parasol) and two-dimensional objects: pages from British and French fashion journals and satirical drawings from Charles Dana Gibson, as well as a postmortem photograph of a child, suitably covered by a black velvet drape to protect it from bright lights. (Photographing the dead was not unusual for the Victorians; in the case of children, it was often the only image the family would ever have of the deceased.)
Mourning parasol, 1895-1900
The ensembles illustrate how mourning progressed through various prescribed phases, and how fashion's changing silhouettes were translated into mourning clothing throughout the Victorian era. Although one or two ensembles are designed for men and children, the bulk of the clothing was made for women. The burden of Victorian mourning fell mostly on adult females, who were supposed to express the collective grief of the entire family. As the heart of the household, women were allowed to give their emotions free reign, wearing them literally on their sleeve, while men were supposed to keep a stiffer upper lip.
For the Victorians, women were supposed to occupy a private, domestic sphere that included the realities of both sex and death, while men were meant to be the ones facing the public in the worlds of politics and business. It was seen as right and natural that women grieve for long periods of time; men, less so.
And for the Victorians, death was everywhere. Infant mortality rates were so high parents often didn't name their children until they'd survived their first year. Disease was rife, thanks in part to overcrowding and poor sanitation, and in America, the Civil War caused casualties on an almost unimaginable scale.
Evening dress, 1861
In fact, one of the most intriguing outfits on display at the Met is a Civil War-era wedding dress of gray silk wool poplin and black silk faille. Even though neither bride or groom had suffered immediate losses, the bride wore the dress as an act of general mourning for Civil War causalities. It's hard not to wonder what she thought about making this choice—forgoing pure, virginal white for a more sullied color, reminding us that even in the midst of life, we are in death. But as the exhibition notes, choosing grey instead of white would have been a sensitive way of celebrating the beginning of a new life while others still grieved.
The wedding dress also reminds us of how Victorian mourning clothing could combine sex and death. These twin poles of existence played out on women's bodies: voluminous veils were meant to hide tears, but the tiny waists shaped by corsets (not to mention the booty-enhancing bustles) must have been made to beckon. And strange as it may sound, perhaps the scent of death itself enhanced a woman's sex appeal—we all know that Thanatos is the other side of Eros, and taboos have a well-established reputation for enhancing the libido. Studies have even shown that being reminded of death increases your interest in the opposite sex.
When women in mourning glided by in their long black gowns, perhaps their clothing also signaled something of the heady potency of life's most unknowable experience. Yet it was always the woman's responsibility to manage the spectacle of her own body and the interest it provoked. (Nor could most women say no to wearing mourning, which would have meant being ostracized from the community at the moment it mattered most.)
During deepest mourning, only the most somber black could be worn, and clothes and accessories were covered with crepe—a coarse, expensive fabric made from silk treated with heat—alongside other matte fabrics such as Parramatta and bombazine. Later mourning could include fabrics with sparkle and sheen, such as silk, taffeta, and moiré, as well as colors such as purple and grey.
Some of the most eye-catching ensembles at the Met hail from these later stages of mourning: A deep violet dress of wool, twill and silk velvet from 1894-1896, made by New York department store James McCreery & Co., looks like something Prince would appreciate, while two purple sequined evening gowns worn by Queen Alexandra when in half-mourning for Queen Victoria are so opulent I could feel the drool forming on the inside of my cheeks. Though most Victorian women would have been loath to admit it, this must have been part of the message communicated by more overwrought mourning styles: one day I'll be dead, but in the meantime, carpe diem. With these gowns, it's impossible not to notice the wearer is very much alive.
You can actually blame (or thank) Queen Victoria for much of her era's mourning practices. When her husband Prince Albert died of typhoid fever in 1861, Queen Victoria descended into a mourning from which she never emerged. Although she limited her public appearances for the rest of her life, images of her all-black garb were reprinted in fashion magazines and cartes des visites (some of which are on display in the exhibit), inspiring other women to copy her look. "Death Becomes Her" even includes a black silk taffeta evening dress worn by Queen Victoria herself. It's the only garment on display without a wasp waist, and its flowing femininity looks a great deal more comfortable than other choices. The queen apparently wasn't one for severe corsets; sex appeal was likely not on her mind.
The Black Ascot, 1910
Victorian mourning practices—which included not just attire but periods of seclusion, not to mention elaborate funeral customs—began to end when the mass casualties of World War I made them seem unsustainable. With 37 million dead, many families would have been in mourning for the entire war, a costly and depressing proposition.
Women were also cautioned that too much mourning of the war dead could look unpatriotic. In June 1918, Vogue ran a special section on mourning clothing, noting "The war has done still more towards moderating the old customs in regard to mourning…woman's part in war means, not only giving herself and her time and her work, but her loved ones as well. Women felt, and rightly, that the indulgence of personal grief, even to the extent of wearing mourning, was incompatible with their duty to themselves, to their country, and to the men who cheerfully laid down their lives."
After World War I, displaying excessive signs of grief went out of fashion, and increasingly became pathologized. A widow in all-black and long veils who doesn't leave her house for weeks would be worried about today; back then, it was normal.
And yet, pop culture has continued to associate mourning wear with glamour. Perhaps this is partly because of the erotic appeal noted above. But perhaps, too, the widow's status in the Victorian era provided inspiration for the independent woman of the future—sexually experienced but without the cloak of respectability provided by a husband.
As the exhibition notes, "While tasteful and timeless, black [in the 19th century] remained associated with death and the garb of the widow—a woman often imagined as dangerously independent and alluring." Dangerously independent and alluring: doesn't that sounds great? (Though it's worth noting that "alluring" is still in the mix—she's still putting on a show for somebody.) Perhaps it's no wonder the little black dress, that compact symbol of understated femininity, is, well, black. At a certain point black may have stopped connoting sorrow, and started connoting freedom.
Brooches, 1850 and 1858
If there's any criticism to be made about the exhibit, it's that including more cultural history would have helped place the clothing in context. Fashion never exists in isolation, but as a response to social, economic, military, and other stimuli. Quotes from magazines, books, and diaries projected on the walls illuminate some of these factors, providing a literal "background" for the clothes, but are easily ignored in favor of the gowns, and obscured whenever anyone stands in front of them.
It also might have been interesting to learn more about how mourning influenced later fashion. The exhibition tells us that black became associated with luxury by the late Middle Ages, in part because of the cost of the dye, and there's the briefest suggestion that widows themselves helped make the color chic, as noted above. But when did wearing black outside mourning go from signifying eccentricity to connoting fashion-consciousness? Perhaps a history of black-only clothing, and some discussion of when black moved from an obligation to a choice, is worth another entire exhibition.