Just in time for Halloween, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute is currently displaying an exhibit called "Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire". The display focuses on the years between 1815 and 1915, especially the Victorian Era (1837-1901), when the mourning industry was at its peak and the traditions and rituals of mourning rivaled those of weddings in Western society. While relatively little was expected of men during mourning, women, particularly widows, had to adhere to a very rigid set of socially acceptable practices. A widow's period of bereavement usually lasted about two and a half years*. In fact, when Queen Victoria lost her beloved consort Prince Albert at the end of 1861, she donned mourning apparel for the rest of her life:
|Queen Victoria in mourning dress for Prince Albert|
(from Whistling Woods - Neeta Lulla School of Fashion)
Proper attire was essential. Even the less wealthy felt obligated to purchase a completely new wardrobe just for this mourning time. The color worn was always black, but the dress (plus accessories after the first year) could be as lavish as one could afford, and hence mourning dress became a display of economic and social status as well as grief. By the early 20th century, the strict mourning standards began to lose popularity, especially with the onset of World War I when the prolonged seclusion of women during mourning became impractical.
The exhibition, featuring about 30 mourning ensembles, debuted on October 21st and will be on display at the Museum until February 1, 2015. Even if you can't make it for Halloween, should you be in the area at a later date you may just want to head on over and take a look.
*This quote from the website CVLT Nation describes in detail just what was expected of a Victorian Era widow:
"During Victorian times, the type of mourning dress and the length of time one wore it was circumscribed by etiquette instead of sumptuary laws. A widow wore mourning dress for 2 1/2 years.
Full mourning lasted a full year and consisted of clothing made of dull black fabrics without embellishment or jewelry. A woman in full mourning wore a veil to cover her face when she left the house. She avoided balls and frivolous events during that time.
After a year had passed, the widow added small trimmings and simple jewelry. Later, that second year, the widow, now in 1/2 mourning, added some color. Gray, mauve, and duller shades of purple and violet were suitable at that time."
Scary times indeed!