Mourning is not a topic frequently discussed. And if it is, we try hard not to dwell on it. We do, however, devote much of our time to death. Look at our zombie-laden TV screens and the endless proliferation of thrillers. Death is not a topic we typically tiptoe around. But mourning still is.
Take The Walking Dead, which has practically desensitized us to death but rarely shows any characters in mourning. Certainly no mourning takes place in American Horror Story. Even the emotionally charged cast of Scandal devoted a mere three minutes of “mourning” to their beloved friend and colleague Harrison’s death.
Mourning is something we are still uncomfortable with because it confronts the honest, painful, gut-wrenching side of death that we try desperately to ignore. Yet it is front and center in Death Becomes Her, the Met’s first fall exhibit at the Anna Wintour Costume Center Galleries, which chronicles the trajectory of mourning wear from 1815-1915. Rarely do we see such imposing proof of our mortality like the outfits showcased here – pulled from the Brooklyn Museum’s archives and devoid of any living bodies within.
From the early 19th century to the early 20th century, mourning wear was pervasive. It was a time when deaths were more common and when a wife’s only purpose was to serve her husband. Death practically became a commodity as mourning warehouses opened, mourning etiquette manuals written and mourning wear became a frequently discussed topic in popular magazines of the time. There were colors of dress, certain fabrics and even details that signified the different stages and levels of mourning.
The exhibit showcased the “crimped, lusterless silk gauze,” the matte blacks and the mourning crapes that defined the early stages of grieving. Styles which eventually gave way to black silk and taffeta, as well as shades of white, gray and mauve to convey later stages of grieving. Yet given the inordinate number of tips and stipulations, mourning dress seemed less a choice and more the only choice. There is something to be said about a sense of order and its healing powers. But is maintaining order for the purpose of healing as effective if the order is forced upon you? One would think not.
There was something perverse in the way these manuals and magazines seemed to say, “You are going to mourn, and this is how you’re going to do it.” Something odd in the way that a mourner’s dress could so easily and quickly portray the mourner’s social status. And something in the calculated ways in which women were taught to “gradually introduce color” into their wardrobes, as if grieving was a simple, linear experience that didn’t differ from person to person.
Even more unsettling was the belief that mourning women apparently invited “predatory male advances.” Hence the title of the exhibit; men often found death to be becoming on women, particularly a widow, who was described as “a woman often imagined as dangerously independent and alluring.” As a sexually experienced and single woman, “she was often imagined as a potential threat to the social order.”
As much as there is to learn about the exterior, superficial representation of death in this exhibit, there is equally as much to take away from what looms in between the seams, behind the veils of the widows and in the lady’s shadows that fleeted across the projected quotes on the walls. In Death Becomes Her, that which is not present is just as worthy of our attention.
There is a reason the title is Death Becomes Her and not Death Becomes Him. As the show’s introduction explained, “A woman in full mourning dress became the emblematic icon of bereavement in Europe and America during the nineteenth century.” There was no veiled male widow at the time, nor hardly any rules for men’s mourning wear. Back then, only husbands, fathers and sons died – that was all that mattered. Widows were stamped as used, too independent, too seductive and alone and vulnerable. In this vein, the title could also be understood more literally – as a widowed woman becoming one with death. Because many people thought a woman in mourning may as well have been dead – she certainly had no chance for a second life. The dress on display, which was worn by Queen Victoria to mourn her consort, Prince Albert, was one of the few garbs of mourning wear that Queen Victoria lived in for the last forty years of her life. After Prince Albert died in1861, the Queen never wore color again, satisfying her fashion tastes by laying out a different outfit for her deceased husband every day for the rest of her life.
This particular tradition of mourning wear represents a certain ilk of idealism that could only exist in a likeminded environment. As soon as the war ended, the brutal, senseless reality of the situation came to light. Like the four speakers in the section of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, “Burial of the Dead,” when living amongst the dead, hollow traditions such as mourning wear began to look useless and stupid. It is only now, once we have abandoned the idea of mourning altogether, that it starts to look more appealing.