On ViewAnna Wintour Costume Center, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
October 21, 2014 – February 1, 2015
One hundred years ago saw the beginning of World War I and the end of the elaborately codified tradition of “wearing mourning.” As the phrase indicates, the word “mourning” had by that time become synonymous with the apparel worn, mainly by women, during the formal mourning period, transforming the internal process of grieving the dead into a codified expression and performance of this process. “Wearing mourning” thus helped free the respectable mourner from the emotional burden of grief, allowing her to carry on with her life—including keeping up with the latest fashions. Death Becomes Her references the double purpose of mourning attire: to dignify and beautify the griever, and to embody her grieving.
This illuminating exhibition is notable not just for its stunning examples of mourning costumes (dating from 1815 – 1915), including gowns worn by Queens Victoria and Alexandra, but perhaps even more so for its tactile conveyance of the much larger, even elaborate role that mourning played in times past. Assuming the mourning attire so beautifully displayed at the Met was more or less routine for the young women who grieved departed parents, husbands, siblings, and children at a time when one in five children died in infancy and the average life expectancy was less than 50 years, it becomes eerily clear that for the women of this era, death was a constant and oppressive reality.
The show is aptly held in the subterranean Costume Institute, transformed for the occasion into a tiny necropolis, complete with funereal music. An elaborate mise-en-scène of costumed mannequins greets the viewer descending the steps, inviting the public to join their private receiving line. The generally petite display figures stand on slightly elevated platforms that bring them closer to the height of the audience. Further minimizing the distance of observer and observed, the dim lighting desaturates all clothing of color, turning visitors into dark silhouettes that mirror the mannequins, which, pale and corpse-like, seem like the ghosts of those who once wore their clothes. We have entered the afterlife of their mourning.
The Met is to be praised for the impeccable presentation of garments that made changing demands of the female body: the sloping shoulders and bustle of the mid-19th century give way to the sway-backed “unibosom” of the turn of the century. Alongside these changes, understated wigs provide a complementary narrative of evolving hairstyles, helping to bring to life the clothes of the dead. Moving through the show, unobtrusive labels note the sober intricacies of mourning attire such as the complex manufacture of mourning crape, a dull black silk prized for the non-reflective quality considered most appropriate for mourning. Apparel was officially keyed to graded periods of the mourning process, from full mourning, during which only black was worn and minimal or no ornamentation was allowed, to half-mourning, when colors including mauve, purple, and gray could be introduced, as well as reflective and decorative materials such as fringe, beading, and metallic accents. Dressmakers compensated for the constraints imposed by the limited palette with the creative use of texture and trim; in one superb example, a dress is adorned with cording of tightly ruched crape.
The show is not without its difficulties, however. While atmospheric, the low light and distant placement of some of the mannequins make it difficult to see much of the exquisite tailoring on view. In contrast, the apparel displayed in last year’s Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity, also at the Met, was more accessible, even when displayed in glass boxes. Projected period quotes fade in and out, injecting a contrasting degree of animation to the static displays. Wisely confined to the walls opposite the mannequins, they are needlessly theatrical and distracting; this viewer would have preferred the display of original texts; the artfully posed mannequins need no help, creating a range of subjectivities all by themselves.
Displayed in a separate room are jewelry made from jet (fossilized wood) and containing hair of the departed, millinery and accessories, several early 19th-century mourning dresses, memorial portraits, and period fashion plates. Here, one wall is given over to a remarkable series of prints by Charles Dana Gibson, published in Life magazine. Telling the story of a fetching woman in mourning and the unwanted attention she receives from men, these satirical illustrations speak to a different side of the mourning widow, whose peers see her as a menace, and whose lovely clothing fails to comfort her or help her reintegrate into society. Death surely “becomes” this preoccupied, if perfectly dressed, wasp-waisted woman: as if presaging her own imminent passing, she attends a costume ball as “Juliet.” Immune to her suitors and their entreaties, she ultimately leaves her former life, and becomes a nun.