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Mourning practices during the 19th century were more than a private grievance, they were a public ritual upholding status through fashionable style. Curated by the Costume Institute, Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire examines the aesthetic convergence of customary black mourning attire with the stylish trends of the day.
The burden of mourning fell mostly on women as men were expected to upkeep economic responsibilities. As a result the majority of the 30 looks on view are examples of upper to middle class women’s wear. Exhibited chronologically on a central stage in the Anna Wintour Costume Center, bright spotlights highlight the multiple layers of textured fabrics used to skillfully craft a dutiful yet fashionable ensemble. Projected onto the surrounding walls are anecdotes from diary entries, fashion magazines, and other historical documents contextualizing the ensembles with personal narratives.
The mourning ensemble was a ubiquitous image during a time when life expectancy was less than 50 years. An American wedding ensemble worn in 1868 by Amelia Jane Carley (1844–1892) was even designed in half-mourning colors and fabrics. The full-bodied dress of grey silk wool poplin and black faille with silk trim was worn as a gesture to honor the fallen of the Civil War.
The mechanization of the textile industry along with the distribution of fashion magazines transformed mourning into an industry held to the same elite standards as high-end fashions. A half-mourning dress dated to 1894-96 bought from a department store showcases the fashionable fitted bodice of the day. Composed of purple wool twill and black velvet with white satin accents and gold metallic trim, this afternoon dress was sold at James McCreery and Co. department store which maintained a mourning-goods section of made-to-order and ready-made garments.
Time spent during each of three mourning phases varied by the level of devotion to a lost loved one. After the death of Prince Albert in 1861, Queen Victoria wore shades of mourning for the remaining four decades of her life. The Queen’s evening dress created from black silk crape with layers of black silk taffeta, satin ribbon, lace and mousseline dated from 1894–95 was reserved compared to the contemporary fashion trends.
In stark contrast to Queen Victoria’s traditional bereavement is the evening dress worn by her niece Queen Alexandra the year following Queen Victoria’s death. Designed by Henriette Favre in 1902, the form fitting bodice of mauve silk tulle embellished with hundreds of cascading metal sequins is difficult to discern from an elegant ball gown.
Accessories helped differentiate between mourning wear and an everyday black ensemble. An American suit of wool broadcloth dated from 1890–95 has only nuanced differences between menswear of the period, most notably a top hat designed by Knox Hat Company Mourning in 1890 embellished with a black silk grosgrain ribbon.
Women’s accessories including embellished hats, decorative jewelry, and lace parasols further accentuated a bereft image. While dressing in an ensemble of black silk crape with layers of weaved mousseline symbolized a phase of grieving, adding a black silk veil to flow dramatically over the face truly created a quintessential image of a bereaved women in mourning.