Criticism
Tuesday, October 21st, 2014

Dead Dressed: Mourning Attire at the Met


Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
October 21, 2014 through February 1, 2015
1000 Fifth Avenue (at 82nd Street)
New York, 212 535 7710

The “Black Ascot,” 1910. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Getty Images.

The “Black Ascot,” 1910. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Getty Images.

I couldn’t think of a better prologue to the opening of Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art than the haunting cello compositions performed by Icelandic musician, Hildur Guðnadóttir, in a pop-up concert this past Friday. Setting a transcendental tone befitting of the exhibit, which opens to the public today and centers around the sartorial mourning rituals of the 19th and early 20th centuries (a time when the mortality rate was much higher and the average person didn’t live into their fifties) — the cellist, who’s played with bands such as Múm and Animal Collective, wove soul-stirring Icelandic hymns about death with angelic alto lyrics and original songs of layered cello loops.

Fashion Plate, 1824. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Costume Institute, The Irene Lewisohn Costume Reference Library; Gift of Woodman Thomson.

Fashion Plate, 1824. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Costume Institute, The Irene Lewisohn Costume Reference Library; Gift of Woodman Thomson.

Three days later, walking down into the basement gallery where the Costume Institute exhibit is on display, I thought about the resounding affect of the cello and the ways in which death echoes throughout our culture, but is often linked with shadowed conversation and dark arts. Though the show’s theme sounds morbid, its tone is lightened by baroque music, and white mannequins whose presence is much less sinister than the masked ones at the Met’s Alexander McQueen show a couple years ago.

The anticipated exhibit, which displays some 30 dresses (including those of Queen Victoria and Queen Alexandra, the former of which wore various shades of mourning attire for the last 40 years of her life), were made primarily of carefully tailored black crape — the folds, pleats, and ruches mimicking the fashionable silhouettes of the time and the guidelines for mourning set forth by magazines advocating “nun-like simplicity” and etiquette guides outlining the mourning practice. Here we learn the deepest state of mourning is reserved for widowed women who show their loyalty by maintaining the dark affect, adding white accents and then gray or mauve to the stiff and dull appearance of black, only after a reasonable amount of time has passed.

These practical observations are juxtaposed by a cheeky sentimentality throughout the exhibit. The burden of this attire on one’s finances and even the ways in which some began to enjoy the all-black aesthetic are common threads throughout. The show is also punctuated by mourning accouterment, memorial embroideries, watercolors, and postmortem photos — which are also the subjects of an exhibit on view now in Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum.

But even if wearing grief on one’s sleeve was a form of protection during social engagements, it was also an invitation for women to become targets in the gender-driven attire. Harold Koda, curator of the exhibit explains in the press release, “The veiled widow could elicit sympathy as well as predatory male advances. As a woman of sexual experience without marital constraints, she was often imagined as a potential threat to the social order.”

This exhibit gives insight into often forgotten Victorian ritual and manners and is underpinned by perhaps an even more important statement about our cultural reluctance to talk openly about death, except to licensed professionals: “We don’t have [grieving] rituals anymore. Ritual practice helps us give form to something we can’t articulate,” says Koda during the press preview of the show. “People needed this before therapists.”

If the cellist was the prologue here, I am still left to consider where this exhibit might conclude. It would be interesting to see how mourning garb translates into avant garde fashion, goth culture, and contemporary death ritual. The exhibit is simply an Anglo testament of mourning attire with much less depth than its opening performance might suggest, but it’s a good conversation starter.

Mourning Ensemble, 1870-1872. Black silk crape, black mousseline. Veil, ca. 1875. Black silk crape. Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, by Karin L. Willis.

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Mourning Dress (Detail), 1902-1904. Black silk crape, black chiffon, black taffeta. Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, by Karin L. Willis.

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Gallery View. Anna Wintour Costume Center, Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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