‘Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire”, The Costume Institute’s first fall exhibition in seven years, is on view in The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Anna Wintour Costume Center from October 21, 2014, through February 1, 2015. The exhibition explores the aesthetic development and cultural implications of mourning fashions of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Approximately 30 ensembles, many of which are being exhibited for the first time, reveal the impact of high-fashion standards on the sartorial dictates of bereavement rituals as they evolved over a century.
With the reopening of The Costume Institute space in May as the Anna Wintour Costume Center, the department returns to mounting two special exhibitions a year, once again including a fall show, in addition to the major spring exhibition. This is the first fall exhibition The Costume Institute has organized since addressing fashion in 2007.
“The predominantly black palette of mourning dramatizes the evolution of period silhouettes and the increasing absorption of fashion ideals into this most codified of etiquettes,” said Harold Koda, Curator in Charge of The Costume Institute, who is curating the exhibition with Jessica Regan, Assistant Curator. “The veiled widow could elicit sympathy as well as predatory male advances. As a woman of sexual experience without marital constraints, she was often imagined as a potential threat to the social order.”
The thematic exhibition is organized chronologically and features mourning dress from 1815 to 1915, primarily from The Costume Institute’s collection. The calendar of bereavement’s evolution and cultural implications are illuminated through women’s clothing and accessories, showing the progression of appropriate fabrics from mourning crape to corded silks, and the later introduction of color with shades of gray and mauve.
“Elaborate standards of mourning set by royalty spread across class lines via fashion magazines,” said Ms. Regan, “and the prescribed clothing was readily available for purchase through mourning ‘warehouses’ that proliferated in European and American cities by mid-century.”
The Anna Wintour Costume Center’s Carl and Iris Barrel Apfel Gallery orients visitors to the exhibition with fashion plates, jewelry, and accessories. The main Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery illustrates the evolution of mourning wear through high fashion silhouettes and includes mourning gowns worn by Queen Victoria and Queen Alexandra. Examples of restrained simplicity are shown alongside those with ostentatious ornamentation. The predominantly black clothes are set off within a stark white space amplified with historic photographs and daguerreotypes.