Now You Know: Why We Wear Black to Funerals

Now You Know: Funeral Dressing
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Welcome to Now You Know, Eric Wilson’s column that will help you become a fashion know-it-all in one quick read. Each week, he’ll take a look at an endearing fashion influence and why it’s relevant right now. Enjoy!

Well, this is a bit of a downer. The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute announced plans this week for an October exhibition called "Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire." This cheekily-titled show will surely be a big draw, a museum exploration of what people wore to funerals in the 19th and early 20th centuries. "Approximately 30 ensembles, many of which are which are being exhibited for the first time," the Costume Institute notes, "will reveal the impact of high-fashion standards on the sartorial dictates of bereavement rituals as they evolved over a century."

As gloomy as this sounds, there’s actually good reason to be interested. It's the first time in seven years that the Costume Institute will present a fall exhibition, rather than just one biggie in the spring, like this year's far more upbeat retrospective of the late couturier Charles James. And its shows do tend to be influential on fashion at large, inspiring trends like goddess dressing, surrealism, and, following its 2007 exhibition on Paul Poiret, a taste for theatrical orientalism and loosely draped dresses. So let's get excited about the aesthetics of death, which, curiously enough, is even the subject of a new museum that opened last month in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn called the Morbid Anatomy Museum, featuring death masks, Victorian hair art, and a lot of taxidermy.

Now You Know: Funeral Dressing

The Costume Institute's exhibition will include examples of mourning dress from 1815 to 1915, covering the appropriate fabrics and, its curators note somewhat ominously, the potential sexual implications of the veiled widow. Harold Koda, the curator in charge of the Costume Institute, also notes that the mostly black palette of mourning attire will serve as a fashion history lesson, dramatizing the rapid evolution of popular silhouettes over that century. In fact, mourning clothes often had cultural significance, particularly gowns worn by Queen Victoria (above) and Queen Alexandra that will be included in the show.

Victoria set something of an exaggerated standard for mourning dress, wearing black for about 40 years following the death of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861, leading to similar social customs among all classes of her day (some who could not afford to buy an all-black wardrobe simply dyed their clothes black) to wear black for months following the death of a loved one.

Now You Know

"Queen Victoria set the funeral dressing standard - she wore black for 40 years after her husband's death."

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"Elaborate standards of mourning set by royalty spread across class lines via fashion magazines," said Jessica Regan, an assistant curator, in the announcement, "and the prescribed clothing was readily available for purchase through mourning 'warehouses' that proliferated in European and American cities by mid-century."

Ceremonial attire can indeed be instructive, but if you’re looking for a less depressing subject, perhaps consider an exhibition that opened in May at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, "Wedding Dresses: 1775-2014," which traces the history of fashion through bridal gowns.

For real-time insider insights, make sure to follow Eric Wilson on Twitter (@EricWilsonSays).

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