Just in time for Halloween, the Anna Wintour Costume Institute at the MET has unveiled it’s first Fall exhibition in seven years.“Death Becomes Her” showcases a century of mourning attire (1815 to 1915) as well as illustrations, paintings, and daguerreotypes, all dedicated to the etiquette of bereavement. The 30 sartorial ensembles on view, many of which are being put on display for the first time, are striking.
The exhibition certainly glorifies the ostentatious and insanely expensive funeral fashions of the day but more importantly, the exhibit gives us a lesson in the complex cultural behaviors that were assigned to grieving women during the 19th century. Unlike their male counterparts, widowed women were expected to go into a period of mourning for two years, during which time they were expected to grieve visually. If you were working class this visual manifestation usually meant having to dye ones entire wardrobe black. However, for those lucky enough to be born into means the grieving period was a much more fashionable one.
Besides donning crepe, a very expensive silk gauzed fabric, you could also find the grieving elite sporting black parasols, brooches, jewels and veils. The whole affair was quite Lana Del Rey glamorous.
The appeal of these visions in black were not lost on the men or women of the time. It was a commonly held belief that 19th century widows were disruptive to the social order. Husband- less women of means who were undoubtedly sexually experienced were demonized as the “home wreckers” of the 19th century.
The cultural phenomenon died down in the 20th century with the advent of World War 1. A projected exhibition quote from American Vogue (1918) states “Women felt, and rightly, that the indulgence of personal grief, even to the extent of wearing mourning, was incompatible with their duty to themselves, to their country, and to the men who cheerfully laid down their lives.”
While the subject matter may come across as morbid the show isn’t at all unsettling.”Death Becomes Her” runs from October 21, 2014 to February 1, 2015, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.