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.

Thank Goodness We Don’t Have to Do That Anymore: Mourn Like It’s 1861

Maybe we should bring back the timeless craft of making stuff out of dead people’s hair? The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

A lot of our notions of etiquette come from the Victorian era when the middle class was on the rise and everyone wanted to show everyone else how on point they were with all of the intricacies of etiquette. One area that was particularly elaborate and somewhat gruesome to us today is the etiquette of mourning.

Length of Mourning

A widow was expected to be in deep mourning of her husband for two years. Then a third year was “ordinary” mourning, and the FOURTH year was considered “second” or “half” mourning. Many older women remained in mourning for the rest of their lives, the most famous being Queen Victoria who was in mourning for her husband, Prince Albert for more than forty years.

Widowers were expected to mourn for a year.

Parents and children were mourned for a year, siblings and grandparents for six months, aunts/uncles for three months, and cousins for six weeks.

Mourning Dress

For a funeral, everyone had to wear black (unless the funeral was for a child or unmarried girl, in which case everyone wore white). Sometimes the family/funeral director would even provide black gloves and scarves for all the mourners.

Then again, I always love a veil. By Anders Zorn 1860-1920  [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Etiquette dictated what you could wear while you were in mourning (in relation to how much time had passed and your relationship to the deceased) right down to what kinds of fabric and jewelry was appropriate.

Men only had to wear a black armband over their regular clothes (though they were supposed to wear only white shirts instead of colored.) This was partially sexist and partially practical. Men’s clothes were much more difficult to dye than women’s clothes and typically when you were in mourning you would just dye all your clothes black instead of buying new, black clothes. The sexist reason was that men still had to go out and go to work and didn’t want to look too depressing.

Women did have to wear all black. In addition, it couldn’t be just any black, it had to be very matte black, so you will see a lot of references to crepe/crape as a fabric choice (a slightly crinkly fabric that does not reflect any light.) Women also had to dress fairly plainly without a lot of embellishments and jet jewelry was the only appropriate kind (other than hair jewelry, which we will get to in a moment.) In addition to all of this, widows had to wear veils over their faces.

Widows didn’t have to wear the crow look for the whole period of mourning. For instance, the widow’s veil could be shortened after the first year! Exciting! The very dark, matte fabric was for deep mourning. For ordinary mourning, you could wear shinier fabrics like silk. For half mourning, you could wear muted colors like grey and lilac.

Children wore a mixture of black and white so they wouldn’t look too sad.

Hair Jewelry

Hair jewelry designs. [Via Flikr user LEOL30]

Hair jewelry is pretty much what it sounds like- jewelry made out of hair! It was very popular during the Victorian period because hair does not decay and therefore makes a great memento of a person who has died.

The hair could just be a simple lock inside a pretty setting or it could be arranged into fabulous shapes and scenes. Simple braids of hair were also worn as bracelets. Hair wreaths hung on the walls were also very popular-see if you can spot one the next time you are in a period house museum.

Like most things related to Victorian mourning, the trend probably relates very closely to Queen Victoria’s mourning of Prince Albert. In fact, the trend disappeared almost entirely right after her death.

Weirdly, only jet jewelry was thought appropriate for deep mourning, though hair jewelry could be worn for the lighter mourning periods.

Being Social While in Mourning

Since mourners were supposed to be sad, they didn’t really go anywhere. It was supposed to have made them more sad to see other people being happy. A rule of thumb was that as long as you were wearing mourning clothes, you shouldn’t go to fun events because mourning clothes and fun clash or something. When you were in lighter mourning you could attend the theater, small functions, and informal events.

Post-Mortem Photography

Photography was first invented during the Victorian period. Combined with extremely high childhood mortality rates, photos of dead people became extremely popular! Sometimes the corpses were shown in a coffin or a bed, looking like they were sleeping. Other times they would be propped up or posed with relatives to look more lifelike. The practice died out (ha-HA!) with the advent of snapshot photography when people started taking pictures of you shortly after you had emerged from the womb and your death photo was no longer the only chance for someone to get an image of you. See some examples here if you are not too faint of heart.

As a note, I am calling this Victorian mourning, but Emily Post was still talking about all of this in her 1922 book and Amy Vanderbilt was still talking about it as something that was just dying (ha-HA! again) out in my 1967 edition of her book.