Since social propriety demands that wives wear mourning for their husbands, it is fair that they be reimbursed for their mourning clothes . . . . Since she is legally required to wear mourning but not pay for its cost, it the responsibility of the husband’s heir to provide her with mourning. —From a lawsuit, 1757. Quoted by Philippe Aries, The Hour of Our Death.
My mourning has been quite an inconvenience to me this summer. I had just spent all the money I could afford for my summer clothes, and was forced to spend $30 more for black dresses. —Julia Ward Howe to Louisa Terry, 1846.
Only recently has society undone it historic role and dismantled the protocols of mourning which it had designed and imposed until the twentieth century. Mourning rituals are not addressed to the dead, but to each other. They are a conversation among ourselves—an exchange between the mourner and the community from which the dead have been evacuated.
But community in the traditional sense has largely faded. In its place are fluid alliances of atomized individuals clustered, often in the abstract, as interest groups. Members are kin by dint of condition, practice or purpose e.g. the handicapped, transgender, and hedge fund communities. (Or, as I heard on the news some days ago in what has to be the ultimate corruption of the word: “the terrorist community.”) The gathering of witnesses toward whom the conventions of mourning are directed have dispersed. Or gone to the gym to put mortality at bay.
How, then, does a contemporary museum approach the sensibilities of a century in which death was a constant companion? One chastened by an acutely higher mortality rate and lower life expectancy than our own? Should the Metropolitan Museum of Art present mourning costumes as revelatory items of social history, tribal marks that acknowledge the scandal of death? Or can it take the Anna-Wintour-devil-wears-Prada route, and beat the drum for widow’s weeds as chic?
Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire at the Met’s Costume Institute takes the gauzier route. The tenor of things is all there in the wording. “Death becomes her” is another, somewhat waspish, way of saying, “She looks good in black.” It is a calculated segue into the mentalité of vintage Vogue. On show is the vanity of melancholy, and its use as a screen between death and the living.
Organized chronologically, the exhibition features mourning dress from 1815 to 1915. Since most men of the time wore black anyway, the evolution of mourning garb concentrates on women’s clothing and accessories. Color and fabric follow the prescribed progression from the total black of early grief to the gradual introduction of grays and mauves that signaled a period of half-mourning. It is a compelling subject that angles into history through dress. Going by the posted blurbs, however, fashion trumps the history it embodies.
Unquestionably, garments on display offer compelling testimony to the beauty and craftsmanship of the needle arts. With the single exception of what is deemed a homemade dress, every outfit is an exquisite work from talented, high-end dressmakers or from newly emergent vendors specializing in funeral wear. (Intimate with ever-present death, the 1800s and early 1900s created a busy market for bereavement apparel analogous to today’s bridal trade.)
It is impossible to look at the cut, construction and detailing of these dresses and refuse honor to the artistry of their making. Hold for another day the debate over whether fashion is art. Here, it simply enough to recognize needlework as inherently worthy of the aesthetic attention given to what we flatter with the term fine art. In the medium of fabric, this is abstract art applied to the human figure instead of a canvas.
Where the show stumbles is in its staging. There is a campiness to the presentation that undercuts the larger cultural value of its own subject and sets entertainment over history. The exhibit opened the last week in October. Halloween hangs over it like Casper the ghost. A-haunting we will go with projected wall texts that fade in and out, wraithlike. A shadow glides across the words for a few disconsolate seconds before one spectral quotation dissolves into another.
In the main, texts posture for audience effect. A sardonic note slips into the printed materials as if to taunt the objects they escort:
Black is becoming; and young widows, fair, plump, and smiling, with their roguish eyes sparkling under their black veils are very seducing. —Robert De Valcourt, The Illustrated Manners Book (1855).
When we see young ladies persist in wearing sable, we are reminded of the reply a young widow made to her mother: “Don’t you see,” said she, “it saves me the expense of advertising for a husband.” —D.C. Colesworth, Hints of Common Politeness (1867).
The Scots shut themselves up in total darkness, wear veils, I know not how many folds, but so black that sitting beside them you could not tell whether it is a broomstick dressed up or what it is. —Elizabeth Stuart to Mary Baker, 1856.
On Halloween night, the Costume Institute celebrated with an invitation to museum-users “to chart their own path through the galleries and join drop-in, interactive experiences with art.” (Not sure what those drop-in experiences entailed; very likely, playing dead was not one of them.)
The doleful sound of Hildur Guonadadóttir’s cello accompanies the display. The sound track irritated me. Plaintive Icelandic hymns about death suppress recollection of the reasons mourning costumes were in such demand in the hundred years featured here. The nineteenth century was a river of blood. Europe convulsed in revolutions, wars of independence or unification. Americans suffered a Civil War that slaughtered a generation of men. Bereavement came blood-stained; widowhood, rampant.
Ms. Guonadadóttir’s contemporary cello loops aestheticize death. They insure a detached, secular response to the crisis of mortality which required these ritual clothes in the first place. Any number of appropriate musical alternatives come to the historically minded. For starters: A Mighty Fortress is Our God or The Strife is Over. Brahms’ How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place would do nicely, as would any arrangement of the Twenty Third Psalm. So would Julia Ward Howe’s Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory. The Battle Hymn of the Republic is more fitting to the time frame of this exhibition than her tart quotation on the wall.
Queen Victoria, a musician herself, loved John Henry Newman’s Lead Kindly Light. Her dress is here; her favorite hymn is not.
One text makes reference to the agony of the age. But even that skips quickly to cost:
No, I do not dress in mourning. It is seldom worn now; there are so many deaths. But few put it on even when the nearest and dearest relatives die. There is probably another reason for not donning mourning; it is very expensive now. Dress goods, especially imported, are very dear. —Annie Fahs, in a letter written in 1863, during the Civil War.
Trembling at the core of respect for the dead is deference toward death itself. In the end, it is ourselves we mourn for. But Ash Wednesday dampens box office.