Sending a Message by Dressing in Black

Dramatic 1861 British mourning attire in black silk moiré.

Dramatic 1861 British mourning attire in black silk moiré.

When the curators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art were researching collections for last year’s Impressionism-fashion show, they noticed something curious – a disproportionate number of luxurious 19th century American dresses in black. The black silhouettes found in the Costume Institute’s collection formed the basis for their first fall exhibition in seven years, Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire, closing this weekend.

The show is a sumptuous walk-through of the years spanning the 1840s to the early 20th century, when fashionable women telegraphed their status as widows, paid tribute to fallen heroes, and acknowledged the passing of a member of the British royal family through dress, hats, parasols, rings, brooches, and other purchases. Click here to see our Flickr feed, and here for the Met’s own gallery views.

1868 wedding ensemble designed by West Virginia bride to honor casualties of the Civil War

1868 wedding ensemble designed by West Virginia bride to honor casualties of the Civil War

Fashion became such a rich language that the women in the 19th century felt “forced” to conform, according to associate curator Jessica Regan. It was an expensive proposition, and during the hard times of the American Civil War, many women stopped worrying about what others might think if they didn’t conform. If you didn’t have the cash to commission a new frock, it seemed to be OK just to dye an old one black.

As fashion magazines and periodicals became ubiquitous, middle-class and elite-status women eagerly sought styles that telegraphed sorrow while maintaining an up-to-the-minute silhouette.

Men of the 19th century were essentially wearing all-black suits, so the show’s focus is squarely on the ladies and the complex codes of mourning-attire etiquette. For example, after a sufficient period of time, a woman could introduce a bit of grey into her wardrobe, then mauve.

1894-1896 half-mourning dress purchased at James McCreery at 180 Broadway,when machine sewing was more common

1894-1896 half-mourning dress purchased at James McCreery at 180 Broadway,when machine sewing was more common

The team has assembled stunning examples of each from local collections (the now in-house Brooklyn collection, New-York Historical Society, and the Museum of the City of New York) as well as from the V&A’s collection in London. The most dramatic all-black look is the sweeping silk moiré gown from 1861 Britain. Perhaps the most startling is the 1868 a all-black bridal gown designed for a West Virginia bride who chose to pay tribute to fallen Civil War soldiers on her happy day.

Boutiques within department stores catered to mourning clothes buyers. Entire warehouses were filled to the brim with essential accouterments for the correct “look”. By the 1860s, mass-production of fabric increased the accessibility of the raw materials. A few decades later, heavy fabrics fell out of fashion in favor of lighter weight, more flowing options.

The 1890s fashions feature the best from New York department stores, including a mourning dress emblazoned with a bold geometric design.

1902 dresses worn by Queen Alexandra to mourn Queen Victoria’s death. French tulle, chiffon, and sequins.

1902 dresses worn by Queen Alexandra to mourn Queen Victoria’s death. French tulle, chiffon, and sequins.

A conservative black dress worn by Queen Victoria stands in stark contrast to the sparkly mauve gowns worn in tribute to her by Queen Alexandra – exquisite and subtle, but not really subdued. The spotlights emphasize the delicate pizzazz of these French confections.

By 1910, wearing all black became fashionable, decoupling the color from its sorrowful past. The show concludes by noting that World War I essentially brought an end to mourning-attire traditions and fashions in Europe.

Enjoy this lecture by associate curator Jessica Regan here, posted on the exhibition home page.

Next up at the Costume Institute, Spring 2015: Chinese Whispers: Tales of the East in Art, Film and Fashion. Get out your cheongsams.

1915 Mme. Boué-Debat mourning hat with silk grapes from Brooklyn Museum collection at the Met

1915 Mme. Boué-Debat mourning hat with silk grapes from Brooklyn Museum collection at the Met

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