One of the most memorable moments in the movie Gone with the Wind is when Scarlett O’Hara, dressed in her mourning attire dances a reel with Rhett Butler. That was very scandalous — when a woman was in mourning during the Civil War, you not only wore black, but you weren’t allowed to appear joyful! The image of women in mourning is indelible, particularly during the Victorian era, when Queen Victoria made mourning almost fashionable — after all, she mourned her husband Albert for forty years. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s latest exhibit, Death Becomes Her, studies the tradition of mourning in the 1800s and early 1900s, ending just after World War I.
When you first enter the room, you’re immediately struck by the dimness of the light and the funereal music being played. The room is laid out in a square with the costumes exhibited on all four sides. On one wall, there are quotes from women who have dressed in mourning attire. As the quotes fade out, you then see the shadow of a woman in full mourning walking across the screen as the new quotes fade in (a very nice effect). In one corner of the room, there are souvenirs for purchase (pencils, ashtrays, funeral jewelry, postcards).
It’s interesting to note how much the sewing machine and magazines played a role in women’s mourning, making mourning clothing more accessible to the middle-class woman. Women were able to see what women in the upper classes were doing, and then copy it, making mourning clothing practically trendy.
By the early 20th century, mourning clothing went out of fashion, with Coco Chanel starting the trend of the “little black dress” (one that is still very prevalent today). However, it came back for one important moment in history: Jacqueline Kennedy wore mourning crepe to the funeral of John Kennedy.
You really must check out this exhibit before it closes in February. It’s fascinating from both a costuming and historical fashion perspective!