Death, in the end, turns out to be a surprisingly lively subject. At least, that is, as far as fashion is concerned.
On Tuesday, the Metropolitan Museum of Art will open its much-anticipated fall costume exhibition on the decidedly downbeat subject of mourning attire as it appeared during the 19th and early 20th centuries. “Death Becomes Her,” as the show is tantalizingly titled, offers a rare public viewing of roughly 30 historic ensembles associated with mourning, all but a few of them black, including some gowns worn by Queen Victoria and Queen Alexandra, and fantastically preserved couture pieces by Charles Frederick Worth.
Victorian bereavement attire is perhaps the oddest subject for curatorial study since the Met tackled “Superheroes” in 2008, but like that show, this one turns out to be far more illuminating than you might guess. After all, no one could mourn quite like Queen Victoria, who wore black for something like 40 years after her husband’s death in 1861, so of course, after descending into the museum’s Anna Wintour Costume Center galleries during a preview on Monday morning, hers were the first dresses to which I wished to pay my respects.
“Black silk taffeta, black silk satin ribbon, black silk crape, black silk lace, black and white mousseline de soie,” reads the description of a perfectly dreary gown from 1894. What stands out about this reserved (yet most certainly ornate) dress, as the curators Harold Koda and Jessica Regan intended, was how it reflected fashion of the period. Victoria may have wished to project an image of chaste widowhood, but her style “incorporates some of the fluidity of the 1890s in the form of sleeves and trimming,” the description notes.
That almost all of the fashion here is black serves to highlight just how changes in mourning attire reflected fashion of the moment, from the earliest pieces in the exhibition, glass-encased gowns from the early 19th century, onwards. There are slight exaggerations in the bustles, panier skirts that broaden at the hips, or, in one startling example (a purple wool twill and velvet mourning dress with full gigot sleeves, sold by the James McCreery & Co. department store in New York, from 1894-96) a wasp waist so narrow as to be terrifying to the contemporary eye. As we learn from the exhibition, advances in clothing manufacturing, such as sewing machines and standardized dress patterns, created an ever widening array of options for mourning attire, and fashion magazines and retailers promoted them extravagantly.
Mourning dresses, in fact, could be quite fancy, illustrated here by two gorgeously sequined dresses, one in mauve by the couturier Henriette Favre (above), the other with flecks of purple (below), that were worn by Queen Alexandra in the early years of the 20th century, following the death of Queen Victoria. The fashion evolution of Victoria’s all-black ensembles was snail-like in comparison to these examples, which predicted the ultimate loosening of such rigidly formal standards of mourning attire.
This was, as the curators cleverly convey through a series of quotations projected all along the walls, a very gradual shift in customs, one that took decades. Take this example from Julia Ward Howe, the American abolitionist and author of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” From 1846:
“My mourning has been quite an inconvenience to me, this summer,” she wrote. “I had just spent all the money I could afford for my summer clothes, and was forced to spend $30 more for black dresses. The black clothes, however, seem to me very idle things, and I shall leave word in my will that no one shall wear them for me.”