Death Becomes Her: Met Exhibit Looks at 19th Century Mourning
Morticia Addams would LOVE this show: “Death Becomes Her,” which the Met unveiled at its subterranean Anna Wintour Costume Center, gives us 30 or so mourning ensembles — English, French, Scottish, but mostly American — that help redefine the notion of drop-dead gorgeous.
These costumes, many culled from the Brooklyn Museum’s collection, all date from the 19th century, when life was short — infant mortality rates were high, and few people made it past 50 — and the grieving period was long. Particularly if you were Queen Victoria, who donned a black dress in 1861, when her beloved Prince Albert died, and never wore any other shade until her own death, 40 years later.
But you didn’t have to be a queen to grieve like one. Industrial Age innovations, including cheaper dyes, helped even the middle class to mourn in style. Vogue and other magazines of the day told them how to go from dull black crape — for the earliest stages of mourning — on to velvets and silk in deep violet, glimmers of white and even silver, or the occasional sprinkling of sequins.
Of course, not every widow back then looked like doughy Queen Victoria. Nipped-in waists and plunging necklines were part of the package — as one of the show’s witty projections tells us, the right mourning dress could pave the way to a new husband.
Haute couture haunts like the House of Worth hardly had a monopoly on mourning glory: Even department stores devoted entire sections to ready-to-wear widow’s weeds. One of the most fetching numbers in the show — a symphony of purple twill, velvet and silk, with gold accents, puffy sleeves and a teeny-tiny waist — came from the old McCreery and Co. Dry Goods Store on Broadway.
But leave it to the French to make mourning truly electric. Designer Charlotte Duclos dressed her widows in black silk chiffon, charmeuse, tulle and glittery glass beads.
Don’t miss the adjoining gallery, filled as it is with mourning accessories — a bonnet festooned with black grapes, inky-looking parasols, lockets containing locks of the deceaseds’ hair — and daguerreotypes of the dead, one portrait so fragile it’s hidden behind a black velvet curtain.
And yes, there’s a gift shop: books of Edgar Allan Poe’s poetry, sombre cameos and other Halloween gifts for your honey.
“Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire” runs through Feb. 1 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fifth Avenue at 82nd Street, metmuseum.org.
Some original text and top photo from the NY Post.