Met exhibit focuses on dressing the part during a century of grief
As our culture has become more informal, the rules of dress have disintegrated, and the notion of appropriate attire has become something akin to an anachronism. But one tradition remains virtually unbowed. Black is the color of mourning.
The grieving widow or widower dons a simple black dress or a subdued black suit to mark the passing of a loved one. Any accessories are kept to a minimum, if they must be worn at all. Perhaps a strand of pearls or some other piece of jewelry with deep sentimental meaning. Nothing too fancy; nothing excessively ostentatious.
Guests also wear black to funerals. Navy is respectable; so is gray. The choice often reflects how close the mourner was to the deceased. A casual work colleague? A regular lunch buddy? Or a best friend? The color reflects the degree of intimacy. And in this way, fashion is at its most definitive, eloquent and articulate.
An exhibition at the recently refurbished and renamed Anna Wintour Costume Center at the Metropolitan Museum of Art explores the subject of mourning attire during a period when it was particularly prescribed. “Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire” begins its survey in the 1830s and continues through 1915. During that time, when the average life expectancy was less than 50 years and death in childbirth and during childhood were all too common, occasions for grieving were not rare. And so mourning attire was part of most everyone’s wardrobe. The look of it shifted right alongside other changes in fashion. During the period of bereavement, the wearer was distinct from society but all the while remaining part of it.
Organized by curator Harold Koda with an assist from Jessica Regan, the exhibition focuses on garments worn by women. They bore the brunt of responsibility for communicating — through their clothes — the depth of a family’s grief. (Men simply wore a black suit and, perhaps, an especially wide black band on their hat.) If a woman was confused about what might be appropriate, there were style experts of the day who made public pronouncements on the propriety of color, decoration and silhouette.
“The heaviest burden of mourning ritual fell upon widows, who were expected to wear mourning for longer and to limit their social activities during this period,” the show notes explain. “It also reflected her changed status and potential vulnerability, as she had lost the financial and social protection of her husband along with the domestic stability of marriage.” A widow was also a potentially dangerous woman, one with sexual experience who was untethered from marriage. Mourning attire marked her and served as a visual reminder of her formidable, discomforting knowledge.
A woman would begin her time of mourning in austere black and eventually add a bit of white detail. In the next phase, ostensibly to coincide with her improved spirits, she would shift to charcoal gray and, eventually, a sober shade of mauve. Her dress would often be constructed of “mourning crape,” which was a light gauze material processed to give it a crinkled texture and a matte, “lusterless” finish. The fabric is self-consciously bleak.
But the clothes themselves were not without elegance and beauty. In fact, some of them are quite breathtaking. There are full-skirted gowns in silk moire and beautifully draped floor-length dresses that, generations later, have not lost their feminine grace. The goal was not to make the grieving woman appear wan and unattractive. She was not engaged in undignified emoting.
Instead, the clothes connote stately grandeur and dignity. In honor of the dearly departed, one dressed with care and attention. The family’s economic circumstances didn’t matter. Women and men were expected to dress in whatever mourning attire fit into their budget. For a woman with fewer advantages, an old dress could be dyed black, if necessary. For a lady with greater wealth, it wasn’t unusual for her to commission haute couture mourning attire from no less a source than the House of Worth.
“Mourning dress served as a visual symbol of grief and of respect for the deceased while simultaneously demonstrating the wearer’s status, taste and level of propriety,” according to the exhibition notes.
Rituals and a show of regard were important, and children were not exempt. Modern society tries to shield children from the sadness of death. But in looking at the tiny dresses with their short, puff sleeves in hues of doleful black, it was clear that the children were not protected from grief. They were expected to face the world head-on.
The formalities of mourning attire — that slow wardrobe progression along the color spectrum, the use of a signature fabric — dissolved long ago. But the tradition of wearing black remains. Perhaps, because we so desperately need it. It aptly speaks to personal sadness — freeing the grieving from having to think, having to make one more decision. It allows them to communicate their sorrow without saying a word.
For the broader community, it is a reliable message of condolence — wordless, but always perfectly expressed. It is a sign of respect that is afforded both the famous and the anonymous, the rich and the poor — equally — upon their death.
“Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire” is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York through Feb. 1.
Robin Givhan is a staff writer for The Washington Post.