By 9:30 a.m. this morning, two women in full goth garb — one in a black lace veil, the other in a top hat — were gamely posing for tourists’ photos on the steps of the Met. They were there, along with more traditionally dressed reporters, to preview the Costume Institute’s latest exhibit, “Death Becomes Her,” which opens tomorrow and focuses on mourning fashion from 1815 to 1915.
While the concept is subdued, the 30-odd looks are surprisingly ornate up close — some gowns fall off the shoulder, as was the style of the era, and come in rich textured moiré and taffeta. These fabrics were, however, restricted to the later stages of grief, as they were considered too showy for the recently bereaved. As the 19th century wore on, mourning essentially became a cottage industry — at the height of the period, fashion magazines like Harper’s Bazaar advised on the preferred styles, and, noted curator-in-charge Harold Koda, mourning warehouses were a popular purveyor of clothing. Queen Victoria and Queen Alexandra, whose dresses are highlighted in the show, also helped shape the public’s concept of bereavement chic, with Victoria donning mourning clothing for the rest of her life after Prince Albert’s death.
The exhibit is simple and spare, befitting the subject matter, though it’s not without its flashes of dark humor. (Even the merch is on point: a coffee-table book of medical illustrations and a book of morbid poetry displayed under a bell jar.) One quote projected on the wall comes from the 1867 etiquette manual Hints of Common Politeness: “When we see 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.’” When I asked her about the quip, assistant curator Jessica Regan explained, “This was often how widows were portrayed in popular culture, as using their mourning as something that was becoming and alluring.” Koda broke in, “That’s really double-edged, in that it’s a very sexist read, because men were able to come out of mourning and they could remarry in a month. It was really unseemly for a woman not to go through full mourning.” (Which, if you’re keeping track, involved a year and a day of “full mourning,” an additional year of so-called “half-mourning,” and another six months of “ordinary mourning.”) A series of comical etchings by Charles Dana Gibson (creator of the Gibson Girl) displayed the second room of the exhibition space depicts a young widow’s adventures, which end with her joining a nunnery. Widows, Koda points out, were “a destabilizing force in pre–World War I society, because they’re sexually knowing, and they’re out on the market.”
Accessories, including elaborate black hats and parasols, have their own corner of the exhibit, along with Victorian mourning jewelry, which often incorporates the hair of the deceased. Looking at the styles on display, the crossover with contemporary goth and gothic Lolita style was obvious. When asked about the continuing appeal of this style of dress, Koda became pensive. “I have a personal theory. I think we’re a generation where death is at such a remove, not for all of us, but the young people who embrace it, there’s a kind of ability to fantasize about what death means.” For fantasists of all stripes, the show will not disappoint.