Friday, January 16, 2015

Dressing for the Dearly Departed

A large salon decked with mourning garments, jewelry, and accoutrements of the 19th century filled the exhibit hall featuring “Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.


The entrance to the exhibit features a painted weeping willow, which represents mourning.

In an interesting juxtaposition of “mourning as fashion”, the exhibit explores the custom during the 1800’s and early 1900’s of elaborate funerary dress governed by the strict grieving etiquette of the upper class, primarily in England and the United States.


(L) American or European tail coat of black wool broadcloth circa 1830, and child’s silk mourning dress of black silk crepe circa 1830; (R) American mourning wear of black silk crepe, taffeta, and straw circa 1845.


Although social conventions of the time required black clothing as acceptable mourning wear, many of the fashions on display were far from somber, exhibiting fanciful beadwork, fine lace, lush velvets, brocades, and other elaborate accessories worn by the well to do -- including hats trimmed with large ornamental feathers or an entire perched bird, finely embroidered gloves and silk fans, and black lacy parasols with fringed tassels.

Charlotte Duclos Mourning Dress, 1910-12 (left-center).  Black silk chiffon, charmeuse and tulle, trimmed in jet and glass beads.  A close-up reveals its fine embroidered beadwork.

(L) American wedding ensemble of half-mourning, 1868.  Gray silk wool and black silk faille, worn by Amelia Gray Carey in West Virginia, in honor of fallen soldiers during the Civil War. (R) James McCreery & Company half-mourning dress circa 1894-96. Purple wool twill, with purple, black and white velvet, silk satin and faille, and gold metallic thread.


Among the royals, there were several opulent ball gowns of “half-mourning” – including a pale mauve silk tulle evening gown by couturier Henrique Favre.  Layered with shimmery metallic sequins and deeply scooped d├ęcolletage, the court dress was worn by Queen Alexandra in 1902, a year after Queen Victoria’s death.

Opulent purple and lavender dresses of half-mourning worn at court.  The lavender gown was worn by Queen Alexandra, a year after Queen Victoria’s death.


In a small side room, several examples of memento mori jewelry were on display including a heavy necklace of black Whitby jet chain links suspended with carved pendants, small lockets which held a strand of hair or colorfully painted miniature of a departed loved one, enameled rings engraved with a weeping willow, tomb stone, or other symbols of grief, and other sentimental keepsakes that could be worn or carried.

(L) Gold mourning locket with pearls and plaited hair; (C) Jet and gold link necklace with cameo and seed pearls; (R) Hairwork bracelet with portrait of Lady Susan Murray, 1826.

The exhibit only runs through February 1, 2015, however, if you’re unable to visit, the museum is digitizing several outfits from the collection and making them available for online viewing.


If you’re in town and want to see how Victorians once “lived”, check out this interesting exhibit.