NEW YORK — This fall, the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art will explore a different kind of fashion history with “Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire.”
This story first appeared in the July 1, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The exhibition will examine the impact of high fashion on mourning between 1815 and 1915, with the 30 or so garments including gowns by Queen Victoria — arguably history’s longest grieving widow — and Queen Alexandra.
The idea for it did not have its origins in death and subsequent grief. “For years, I have wanted to do a silhouette show, something that looks at the most exaggerated elements of the fashionable silhouette, which, in the 19th century, takes really extraordinary transformations,” said curator-in-charge Harold Koda, who worked on the exhibition with assistant curator Jessica Regan. “I was talking with Jessica, and said, ‘Why don’t we do a show with all of our black dresses on the theme of mourning?’ It’s a sociohistorical survey of this culture of memorializing and grieving. It’s the intersection of this really sobering and quite poignant narrative about dealing with grief, and at the same time a really chic fashion story.”
Needless to say, it will feature mostly black ensembles, as well as jewelry and accessories (“Veils,” Koda exclaimed).
“Our selections are based on trying to find expressions of each of the silhouettes that existed these decades, and to represent different stages of mourning and different textiles that were required according to the dictates of mourning etiquette,” Regan noted. For example, this includes a progression of fabrics from mourning crepe to corded silks, and later, the introduction of subtle color via shades of gray and mauve.
“There is this overlay of fashion with this really ritualized aspect of mourning,” Koda said, adding that there will also be 19th-century photographs of women in mourning.
He said the main takeaway is going to be how “even in a subject that is so fraught with emotion, clothing is a very active participant in addressing these more intangible issues. It becomes a physical manifestation of grief and in a way becomes something that is a mechanism for dealing with it.”
This marks the Costume Institute’s first fall exhibition in seven years. It will take place at the Anna Wintour Costume Center, and will be open to the public Oct. 21, 2014, through Feb. 1, 2015.
“The focus,” added Koda, “might seem somber, and, of course, the content is necessarily serious, but I think people will leave astonished by the range of how fashion insinuates itself into all of this.”