At the Anna Wintour Centre of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (metmuseum.org) until the end of February 2015, the unusual exhibition entitled, Death Becomes Her, retraces the evolution of mourning attire, seen from the woman’s perspective.
Thirty ensembles, accompanied by photographs and accessories, explore the way in which fashion has influenced the sartorial processes, covering the period from the early 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century. On display are some gowns worn by Queen Victoria, who made mourning a habit and a way of life, wearing black for 40 years, from the death of her husband until the end of her days, so contributing to the spread of “the fashion of loss” and providing an example of inescapable austerity.
The woman in mourning, obliged to wear black in order to adhere to society’s etiquette of bereavement, did not only represent the expression of loss and grief but was also the manifestation of social status. Indeed, the materials used varied according to the financial resources available, and to social class. For the upper classes, this rigid ritual ensured that style, elegance and quality were never abandoned; one had to be sad but sophisticated.
During the Victorian era even accessories had an important role, with jewellery containing a part of the loved one (usually a lock of hair), and post-mortem photographs, which contributed to the creation of a fashionable image.
If, on the one hand, a woman elicited sympathy, on the other hand she was considered a threat to the social order. The reason for this was simply that this attire made her vulnerable to advances from men who saw in her a “sexually experienced” woman, without ties.
The curators have stated that the exhibition was born almost by chance: during research into the evolution of the black dress they realised that in the period preceding the 20th century, this colour had only been associated with death.
It would be necessary to await the twenties and Coco Chanel to see it used outside of mourning, without being considered inappropriate or improper.
An exhibition that is out of the ordinary and the only one of its kind, in which fashion examines itself, social conditioning linked to customs, and the history of dress, that is none other than the history of which we are all a part.
“Fashion, (as we conceive it today) is based on a violent sensation of time. Every year fashion destroys that which it has been admiring, it adores that which it is about to destroy”.
Roland Barthes (1915-1980)
Text: Barbara Centazzo