Morbid à la Mode

Mourning ensemble 1870. American. Silk.

Mourning ensemble 1870. American. Silk.

What might be sad is actually quite sartorial. Rebena wishes so much she were in the big apple to see the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition called “Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire.” This cheekily-titled show has been a big draw for the museum as it explores what people wore to funerals in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

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Circa: 1910

“Approximately 30 ensembles, many of which are which are being exhibited for the first time,” the Costume Institute notes, “will reveal the impact of high-fashion standards on the sartorial dictates of bereavement rituals as they evolved over a century.”

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Mourning jewelry styles emerged made of hair from the deceased. 1830’s – 1910.

As gloomy as this sounds, there’s actually good reason to be interested.  Clothing and costuming shows do tend to be influential on fashion at large, inspiring trends like goddess dressing, surrealism, and, following its 2007 exhibition on Paul Poiret, a taste for theatrical orientalism and loosely draped dresses.

An entire commercial market centered around mourning accessories fledged by the mid 19th century.

An entire commercial market centered around mourning accessories fledged by the mid 19th century.

So let’s get excited about the aesthetics of death, which, curiously enough, is even the subject of a new museum that opened last month in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn called the Morbid Anatomy Museum, featuring death masks, Victorian hair art, and a lot of taxidermy.

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American Mid Century Mourning Dress

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Exhibit Entrance // 1890 Mourning gowns

The Costume Institute’s exhibition will include examples of mourning dress from 1815 to 1915, covering the appropriate fabrics and, its curators note somewhat ominously, the potential sexual implications of the veiled widow.
Harold Koda, the curator in charge of the Costume Institute, also notes that the mostly black palette of mourning attire will serve as a fashion history lesson, dramatizing the rapid evolution of popular silhouettes over that century.

Queen Victoria set the funeral dressing standard – she wore black for 40 years after her husband’s death.

Victoria set the funeral wear standard – she wore black for 40 years after her husband’s death.

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How Queen Alexandra’s wardrobe evolved once she was mourning.

In fact, mourning clothes often had cultural significance, particularly gowns worn by Queen Victoria (above) and Queen Alexandra that will be included in the show.
Victoria set something of an exaggerated standard for mourning dress, wearing black for about 40 years following the death of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861, leading to similar social customs among all classes of her day (some who could not afford to buy an all-black wardrobe simply dyed their clothes black) to wear black for months following the death of a loved one.

In the later mourning stages, wardrobe codes became more lenient, as is the case with this black evening dress from 1981.

In the later mourning stages, wardrobe codes became more lenient, as is the case with this black evening dress from 1981.

Rebena wishes she could be there to witness the high fashion silhouettes, fashion plates, jewelry and accessories.  Mourning as a fashion phenomenon: It’s not morbid… it was just à la mode.

Sources: In Style, The Metropolitan Museum of Art,