Death Becomes Her at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

I remember a remark a very superficial minded young lady made to me the other day: ‘I think a long black dress and a long black veil looks so nice.’ Poor creature let her think on. She wore mourning once for her father. – Nannie Haskins Willams, 1863

Dear Diane and Shaded Viewers,

Yesterday I attended the preview of the new exhibit by the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, called Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire. It examines a period of time, 19th Century to early 20th Century, when mourning rituals were still full of complexities of social code, including the sartorial one.

The exhibition is not big, and it was not meant to be. The recent opening of a space devoted to the Costume Institute now allows it to put on smaller scale fall exhibits that highlight costume history in an analytical way, in addition to the spring blockbusters we have become used to. The show contains thirty main ensembles, plus some jewelry and artwork. Some of the outfits are exhibited for the first time, and as the curator Harold Koda walked me through he explained the painstaking process of having to reconstruct some of the dresses (one dress took six months of stitch-by-stitch reassembly).

Most outfits on display, are, of course, black. But the one that carried the most interesting story was gray. Actually, it was a wedding dress worn by a young bride from a prominent American family. Because her wedding happened shortly after the American Civil war, she could not bring herself to wear the traditional white, and wore gray to show that she grieved for soldiers who have fallen in the war. This was the most romantic representation of gray, pregnant with meaning, a signifier of life in which the joys and the sorrows are inextricable.

Also, if you are not into black (though everyone reading this blog should be!), another highlight of the exhibit was a mauve sequined dress that Queen Alexandra allowed herself after a year of mourning for Queen Victoria. How transgressive she must have felt we will never understand given that we as a culture seem to have largely lost the capacity to mourn (do people take selfies at funerals now? Probably).

These Victorian period dresses are testaments of another sort of complexities, those of women’s fashion at the time. And if you are a student of fashion design, whether in the literal or figurative sense, it’s a show worth seeing because at some point you will find yourself lost in the intricacies of silhouette, garment construction and layering of silk, silk, and more silk. For Mr. Koda this part was obviously fascinating, and he sounded almost secretely delighted in putting on a show about mourning.

Though the clothes are the centerpiece of the show, the small jewelry selection is utterly fascinating (a few pieces were borrowed by the Costume Institute from the fashion editor Lynn Yaeger, whose period jewelry enthusiam evidently rivals her fashion expertise). Apparently, it was common practice to take the hair of the dead and incorporate them into the jewelry. There were lockets with hair inside, and a bracelet with hair woven between its links. “It may seem morbid to us,” said Mr. Koda, “but it was sentimental to them in the 19th Century.”