Death Becomes Her: Etiquette in the Museum!

IMG_0786It is only rarely that museums have exhibitions that directly reflect etiquette, so I was very excited to see the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire, the first fall show of the newly renamed Anna Wintour Costume Institute. We’ve discussed Victorian Mourning etiquette before, but it’s a subject worth revisiting in the context of this amazing exhibition (if you are in NYC, go see it before it closes February 1.)

This particular exhibition covers roughly the years 1815-1915 which spans the growth, peak, and decline of intense mourning clothing traditions in the United States (and a little bit of England). During this period, as the wall text reads: “With the growing circulation of women’s periodicals and advice manuals, along with technical advances that shaped the textile industry and fashion retail, modes of mourning that had been the preserve of the elite were made available to the burgeoning middle class.” With the end of World War I in 1918, formal mourning requirements drop off drastically. Interestingly, the massive casualties of the Civil War led almost to a peak of strict mourning rules whereas the even greater casualties of WWI made death so common and for such a “cause” that public mourning- the wearing of black and so forth was actually discouraged (especially in England). This led to the more current custom of only really wearing “mourning” clothes at the actual funeral services, if even then. The excellent review of the exhibition in the Wall Street Journal points out that the last public hurrah of this kind of “veiled widow” style of mourning was during the political assassinations of the 1960s.

What I really loved about this exhibition was how clearly they linked the etiquette requirements of doing certain things during mourning: first wearing very matte black fabrics with little ornamentations, then getting shinier fabrics, and then introducing whites/greys/purples- and how women still fashioned their mourning attire after the most current styles of the day. There was a whole display of fashion plates which illustrated this, even down to two separate plates showing the same dress- one in “mourning” and one “regular”.


Sorry for my blurry photos!!

The fashionableness of mourning clothes was quite important to these women, not only because hey, everyone likes to be fashionable, but because a young widow also probably wanted to get remarried as soon as her proscribed two years of mourning were over. There was a great series of illustrations by Charles Dana Gibson (of Gibson Girl fame) satirically illustrating the life cycle of a widow where she is first an object of sympathy, but then as she tries to rejoin society becomes an object of men’s leers and women’s derision. This particular widow ends up joining a convent but not being able to escape the gaze of the priest.


There is quite a lot of focus on “the widow” as a specific form of female loveliness and object of desire. Some passages from books and etiquette manuals flash on the wall and this one in particular caught my attention: “Black is becoming; and young widows, fair, plump, and smiling, with their roguish eyes sparkling under their black veils are very seducing,”  from The Illustrated Manners Book by Robert De Valcourt 1855.

As with most fashion exhibitions, the show focused mostly on women’s clothing, and there are plennnnnty of beautiful gowns to drool over. Happily, there were a few men’s things as well, with a great text explaining that since men’s clothing during the period was already so somber, there wasn’t much they could do to show that they were mourning in the way women could. Instead, they would do things like wear a black band on their hat, or use black accessories such as cufflinks, gloves, and ties. Of course, men were a lot less likely to be commented on if they didn’t wear mourning properly so they also didn’t have the social pressure to conform in the same way women did.

The smaller gallery, including the works on paper mentioned above, also contains a small sample of mourning jewelry such as the famed Victorian hair jewelry and some jet things. Also a child’s post mortem photograph that is so fragile it must be covered with a black cloth- the image is so hard to see they shouldn’t have bothered. If these morbid-type things are more your cup of tea, it would be better to check out Brooklyn’s new Morbid Anatomy Museum’s nice little exhibit on the more gruesome side of Victorian mourning culture.

The exhibition was accompanied by a recording of Gabriel Faure’s “Requiem, Op. 48,” a nice touch for creating a haunting atmosphere to the underground galleries. It’s a small exhibit, but beautifully laid out and the starkness of the black dresses lended a beauty to the array and also let you really focus on the details and shapes of the designs. Totally worth the $1 you can pay at the Met, and for fashion/textile lovers, there is a bonus exhibition of GORGEOUS kimono in the Asian Art wing.


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