Sunday, December 14, 2014


We visit Death Becomes Her, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's look at widows' weeds in America and Great Britain

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, we went to "Death Becomes Her", the exhibition of Victorian mourning clothing and jewelry at the Metropolitan Museum's Costume Institute which is on display until February 1, 2015. Foolishly, we picked a holiday weekend when the show and the museum were jam-packed with people, many of them tourists from out of town. But, being troopers who are used to crowds, we rallied and were able to view each item and read its signage.

Behind us is the mannequin depicting Queen Victoria, the British monarch who ruled from 1837 to 1901 and raised the act of mourning to an art form.  When her husband Albert died of typhoid in 1861, Victoria spent the next 40 years of her life in mourning, giving birth to an entire industry devoted to mourning clothing and jewelry.  She subjected her court to three years of full mourning dressing.  Mourning clothing became an intricate part of 19th century life.  Mourning had its own language of colors, fabrics and behaviors.

Full mourning ran for one year and one day during which the widow wore dull black and no ornamentation; a black crepe weeping veil was the most visible sign.  The second mourning period ran for nine months during which minor ornamentation, fabric trim and mourning jewelry could be introduced.  The main dress was still of lusterless cloth but the veil could be lifted and worn back.  Half-mourning ran an additional three to six months, marked by elaborate fabrics and trims and all manner of jewelry.

Full "widow's weeds" consisted of a crepe dress with plain collar, broad weepers cuffs of white muslin; bombazine (silk and wool) mantle or cloak and crepe bonnet with veil outdoors and widow's cap indoors. The veil was made of gummed, tightly twisted silk threads, volatile and hazardous. Rain made it shrivel and practically disintegrate.

In these American mourning clothes dated circa the 1840s, black extends to everything, even the children. But mourning is not the only message here. As noted in the accompanying label, "Mourning dress served as a visual symbol of grief and of respect for the deceased while simultaneously demonstrating the wearer’s status, taste, and level of propriety." These people are shown in the first and deepest stage of mourning - no jewelry, no luster, no color. Even the elaborate shawl (second from left), ordinarily in a variety of colors, is a mourning shawl, in shades of black and gray.

An entire industry sprang up around mourning wear.  Jay’s of London, specializing in mourning wear, "published richly illustrated catalogues of the latest fashions, available in materials appropriate for mourning. Jay’s emphasized that the dictates of mourning and fashion could coexist".  This British black moire evening dress, dated to 1861, might have been worn during "the period of General Mourning ordered after the death of Queen Victoria’s consort, Prince Albert, in 1861."

In the outfit below, the untutored eye sees a woman in deep mourning.  But an American in the 1870s, when this was made, would have detected a fashion statement, particularly in the highly decorated hem, popular at the time.  The exhibition room is lined with quotations about mourning wear, including this stunning statement:  "So many eyes have been injured by the persistent wearing of crape veils, that physicians forbid them.  The eyes that survive the bitterness of tears succumb to the poisonous rasping of crape." - The Delineator, 1895.   (Editors' note: we were both perplexed by the seemingly interchangeable use of crepe and crape.  There may be a difference.  If anyone can fill us in, please do.  In the meantime, we are using the spellings as we found them in the Museum's texts.)

This walking costume consists of a jacket in mourning crape and a skirt of bombazine, both mourning fabrics.  Bombazine was woven of silk warps and wool wefts.  The wool helped mute the inappropriate luster of the silk.  (While the name bombazine has a brash sound to it, it originates in the Greek and Latin for silk.)  Note how much detailing has gone into the skirt, despite its being mourning attire.  Before the rise of the mourning wear industry, ordinary clothes might be dyed black.

Little of the exhibition is devoted to men's mourning wear.    As noted in the Museum's labeling, "During an era when most men habitually dressed in dark, uniformly subdued fabrics, the attire of a man in mourning scarcely changed. The increasingly sober nature of menswear throughout the nineteenth century lay in stark contrast to the exuberant and rapidly changing styles of womenswear and reflected the status of the wearer more subtly, through nuances of cut and fit. Mourning was likewise signified through subtle alterations to a man’s wardrobe, such as a hat with a deep black band, often accompanied by black accessories, including gloves, cufflinks, and neckties. Mourning-dress requirements were more loosely defined for men than for women, and a man was less likely to be censured if he chose not to wear mourning. "

This American costume, dating to the late 1890s, also reflects the first and deepest stage of mourning, but has nevertheless kept up with all the latest fashion trends.  Before the perfection of chemical dyes, black had been a very expensive color to dye, and as a result had formerly been worn by the wealthier classes.  Early black chemical dyes faded to blue or black, and was a concern that makers of mourning wear had to address.

This suit dated 1915 very much reflects the fashions of the times.

After the first year in all black, a woman was allowed to introduce color into her wardrobe.  This Gay '90s period dress, in purple and black silk velvet, black and white silk satin, white silk faille and gold metallic thread, consists of fabrics, embellishments and colors consistent with "half mourning".   The Museum labeling points out that "[t]he availability of an expanding range of ready-made goods for women was facilitated by the invention of the sewing machine, increasing standardization of dress patterns, and the rise of department stores that capitalized on these innovations."

This satirical cartoon by Charles Dana Gibson, dated 1900, comments on the highly fraught status of widows.  Convention dictated that she dress to show that she was unavailable, but widowhood also left her unprotected, and a target of criticism and gossip.

The politics of death in the United States and Britain had a major impact on mourning clothes.  In one of those rare circumstances where the Museum was given the background story along with the donation, it appears that this was a wedding dress "worn in 1868 in West Virginia, the half-mourning colors chosen in honor of those who died during the Civil War", although neither the bride nor the groom had lost family members.

As mentioned above, the death of Prince Albert in 1861 had repercussions for decades.

The queen's widow's cap.

Below are two half-mourning dresses, one in mauve, the other in purple, worn by Queen Alexandra in 1902 in deference to the passing of Queen Victoria in 1901.  Queen Alexandra's decision not to prolong full mourning as Victoria did reflects not only the differences in their personalities but changing views toward mourning as well.  (As an aside, inquiring minds want to know how garments from Queen Victoria's and Queen Alexandra's wardrobes came into U.S. hands.  Surely some breach of protocol was involved?)

In 1910, Edward VII passed away shortly before the annual Ascot races.  Custom would ordinarily have demanded that the races be cancelled, but Edward had been a great aficionado of horse racing.  So it was determined that Ascot could proceed, with the proviso that everyone wear mourning attire.

It was with the advent of World War I that the mourning industry began to fade.  The Museum's labeling reads:  "The war accelerated the abandonment of strict codes of mourning etiquette, particularly in Britain and the United States, where the mass casualties of the war and women’s changing roles prompted a reevaluation of elaborate mourning rituals. As women were joining the workforce and contributing to the war effort, periods of seclusion tied to traditional forms of mourning dress lost their relevance.  After the war, fashion coverage of mourning diminished, yielding to increasing freedom regarding how, or whether, to display personal grief. "

The Metropolitan's choice of a weeping willow tree at the entrance to the exhibition was particularly apt.

In the mourning clothes industry, accessories played a large role. This vitrine contained a mourning veil, parasol and fan, all encased in black crepe. The Met's signage indicated that the accompanying veil is composed of "mourning crape".  Mass production of this material was perfected by English manufacturers during the first half of the nineteenth century. In order to achieve the fabric's distinct texture and finish, undyed gauze made from highly twisted silk yarns was first passed through a pair of rollers; one was engraved with a pattern that was impressed upon the textile. Next, the fabric was soaked in a hot liquid, relaxing the twisted threads and creating a crimped effect. It was then dyed and dressed with a gum or starch, giving it a stiff body and the dull appearance required of deep mourning.

The American parasol (ca. 1895-1900) is made of black silk mousseline, black silk crape, black silk taffeta, wood, metal and tortoiseshell; the American mourning fan (dated 1880-1885) of black plain weave silk and ebonized sandalwood; all are from the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection. The parasol's canopy of black taffeta is overlaid with mourning crape, surmounted by rusched mousseline de soie and bands of lace. This application echoes the rich layering of airy fabrics characteristic of feminine garments of the period. This closeup photograph of the parasol gives you an idea of the intricacies of the fabrics.

Decorations on deep mourning hats were matte.

Even the grapes on this hat are colored charcoal.

This light and airy egret feather hat would have been worn much later in the mourning period.

Valerie gets into the mood of the exhibition.

Fashion journals of the times detailed what women might tastefully wear.  Below are mourning dresses from 1809 Ackerman's Repository of Arts etc. (British, 1809-29)

A walking dress.

Hair of a loved one was often incorporated into the jewelry as a cherished memento. This late 19th century mourning necklace and locket are made of gold, onyx, seed pearl and hair.

It was a pleasant surprise to read on the label that this gold, enamel, diamond and hair brooch from 1810 was courtesy of Lynn Yeager, our favorite Vogue writer and woman-about-town.  It was inscribed on the reverse, reserved in gold on black enamel "Charles James Ob: 30 April 1810/Phillip Ob: 7 April 1808".

Engraved "In memory of 17 May 1859" on the back, this gold locket contains a curled lock of hair behind glass.

This elaborate diamond and agate brooch from 1874 also incorporates hair.

Chains of finely braided hair of a loved one were woven into necklaces and watch fobs as the ultimate remembrance.

This jet and metal British necklace is circa 1860.  Whitby jet was considered the best quality.

Matte black bog oak was often carved and engraved and worn during periods of deep mourning.  This cross,  a gift to Jean several years ago from Kirsten Hawthorne, is a classic example.

Cameos were also a popular image incorporated into mourning jewelry. This black and butterscotch Bakelite cameo pin belonged to Jean's Scottish grandmother.

This black Bakelite cameo pendant with an identical image also was inherited from Jean's grandmother.

Likewise, this carved ivory and silver pin was passed down through her family.

If you are interested in adding some Victorian jewelry to your own collection, be aware that examples of mourning jewelry, such as this carved gutta percha pin, are available on web auctions.  (Fun fact: gutta percha was also used inside early golf balls.)

Hope you enjoyed this post.  Send us your comments.  Cheers!


  1. I am fascinated with your post. The history, the photos, the mourning hats, your exquisite writing. There is something to be said for ritual.

  2. It's always nice to be entertained, and informed - this post did both! Jean's Bakelite cameos are so beautiful.