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Let's Bring Back Mourning Clothes

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

When Ellen Olenska—freshly back from Europe under a pall of ambiguous disgrace—invites Newland Archer to her home for the first time in Edith Wharton’s novel The Age of Innocence, she ignores the unwritten sartorial mandates and dons “a long robe of red velvet bordered about the chin and down the front with glossy black fur.” As a little girl, Ellen appeared to exhibit a similar disregard for convention, mourning her parents in wildly inappropriate clothing: “crimson merino and amber beads.” The gossips and busybodies who recall that childhood faux pas want to imply a provocative question About Ellen: Was the little girl even sorry that her parents had died? Because red is certainly not the color of sadness.

The color of sadness, as a new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s new exhibit, “Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire” attests, was (of course) black, black, and more black—with a little gray, mauve, and white allowed to creep in as time passed. Mourning clothes—along with other facets of grief—were highly regimented in Victorian England and nineteenth-century America. As the curator's note explains, “Mourning through sartorial display, a duty chiefly assumed by women, followed a series of stages marked by changes in fabrics and colors.” Exacting codes defined which fabrics and colors were acceptable at particular stages of grief: For the first months after a death, only “lusterless” black dresses were acceptable. As time passed—and for a widow one expected to wear mourning clothes for a full two years—the strictures slowly loosened, and the severity of the attire decrased. Closeness to the deceased mattered a great deal as well; widows were expected to don the most modest dresses and the most elaborate crepe veils.

Anna Wintour Costume Center, Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery
© The Metropolitan Museum of Art

This was, of course, still fashion, however, and with every passing season and decade trends fluctuated. The skirts of mourning dresses flared and the corsets tightened in the late 1850s and 1860s (think of the "bereaved" Scarlett O'Hara after Charles Hamilton dies) and silhouettes slimmed down in the 1870s. And such information wasn’t merely intuited or passed by word of mouth. Various household journals written expressly for women (like The Queen, which originated in 1861 and was eventually subsumed into Harper’s Bazaar) provided illustrated fashion plates that clearly marked the exact type of hat a widow in half-mourning should wear, or the precise hairstyles acceptable for the daughter of a mother recently deceased.

The public’s adherence to appearance-based mourning traditions existed well before Victoria’s reign—you can easily find Regency-era fashion illustrations on Pinterest, for example—and contrary to the popular myth, Victoria herself did not start the craze when she retired to mourn her beloved Albert. But a concurrence of events—The Great Exhibition of 1851, which was the first ever international exhibition of manufactured goods; the rise of the prosperous middle class following the 1832 Reform Act; the advances in fabric production as a result of the industrialization of northern England; the rise in literacy leading to the golden age of the weekly periodical—encouraged the spread of commodities as markers of grief. And such commodities extended beyond just dresses and veils. There were mourning rings and lockets embedded with locks of hair, handkerchiefs edged in black lace like the one placed over the dead baby Jenny in Dickens’s Bleak House, and even post-mortem photographs of the deceased on their deathbeds—or occasionally propped up to appear still alive. The Victorians had an entire market of memorabilia with which they could memorialize the dead. 

Such rigorous conventions and elaborate artifacts sound a bit overbearing (and macabre) to our modern ears. But the modern funeral industry is, of course, no better—it’s an exhausting, expensive exercise in overpriced, unnecessary totems. Caskets—which, let's remind ourselves, are boxes in which we will put dead bodies and then bury forever—can cost upwards of $2,000. Those beribboned flower sprays? An easy five hundred bucks. But the modern funeral is also oddly temporal, considering the eternal nature of death. Secular funeral traditions today involve a viewing in the evening, a funeral in the morning, perhaps a luncheon to follow, and then it’s back to normal life. The Victorian traditions, on the other hand, continued for months and even years past internment. And they provided a service which we're sorely lacking today: they reminded both the griever and those she came in contact with that death was only the beginning of a long grieving process.

Anna Wintour Costume Center, Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The mourning period is a nebulous and tricky thing to navigate in modern life. The boyfriend of a very close friend died in an accident the summer after our freshman year of college. The most agonizing conversations I remember having with her revolved around the expectations others placed on her grief rather than the death itself: When would she “get over it”? How long was she going to remain single? Did she ever think she’d get married? When she began dating another person, she confronted all kinds of unkind judgment from those who thought she’d “moved on” too quickly and wondered (yes, out loud) if she’d really loved the boyfriend who had died.

Would mourning clothes have helped her or hindered her? So often we think of the strictures of the Victorians as constraining, but there is a sense in which their very formal propriety feels appropriate and even comforting. If you exclude certain religious traditions—sitting shiva, for example—in which the processes immediately following death are heavily prescribed and demand an explicit and relatively lengthy interruption of everyday life, modern grief is missing a sense of etiquette and deliberateness—a set of outward signs for the bereaved to use as signals.

Of course, the penalties for failing to comply with Victorian mourning edicts were severe—just look at what happened to poor Ellen Olenska when she refused to play by the rules. To impose such demanding rules on grieving people now would be retrograde and unfeeling. But we move through this world without knowing or understanding the majority of people we come in contact with every day: the woman behind us in line at the grocery store, the young man waiting next to us for the bus. Opting to wear an outward sign of our inner grief could encourage those closest to us to be more patient with our grieving processes. It could allow us to feel a little less alone in our sorrow. And it could remind us to be gentler with strangers, for we don't know what pain they're enduring. 

A band around the arm, a ring around the finger, a reminder to the world that mourning does not end when the last mourner has left the graveside.