Death Becomes Her: The Dark Arts of Crepe and Mourning

Before I left the house to go to the new Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire, which explores The Costume Institute’s extensive collection of grieving garments from the 19th and early 20th Centuries, I thought about asking my father what I should wear. One of the earliest conversations I can remember having with him is our discussion about what he wants me to wear at his funeral. He demands that all attendees wear Hawaiian shirts—no suits—and I have several pre-approved.

This is the stuff of our early morning conversations, morbid jokes over bacon and eggs. He’s not on his death bed—he just likes making light of the inevitable darkness that sits in the air sometimes as we eat, surrounded by prescriptions (his, mine, my mother’s). He was still asleep on a Saturday afternoon, too groggy to give me clothing advice, so I ended up dressing in black leather and a stiff crepe skirt to the exhibit as a kind of all-immersive experience. (Leather is technically inappropriate for traditional mourning attire from the 19th Century, but it’s also literally the product of a dead thing, so it was a little joke with myself.)

When I got to the Met, my phone rattled a reminder to take my own pills. I pressed “ignore” on as I walked into the exhibit; it was the only sound in the room.

In the Victorian era in Britain and the United States, crepe in variations of heft, silk, merino, and cashmere was the approved fabric of loss and mourning. It’s the dead quality crepe has, with a kind of crisped appearance. Most of the dresses on display at the Met are black fountains of it, in varying degrees of weight, and varying shades of black or grey. Heavy crepe looks marbled and dull—it absorbs the light, which is strange considering how traditional silk reflects light like a mirror. Crepe is like the dark heart of silk. (Another fun fact about it is when it rained, the fabric would turn white—the color of mourning in other cultures—and it would ruin the cloth. Death to the death fabric!)

Death Becomes Her is really beautifully laid out, presenting a chronological account of Western cultural mourning from 1815 to 1915 in the form of 30 looks with accompanying illustrations, accessories, and jewels, with quotes projected and ghostly on the wall, floating through as you walk past. Despite its title, it’s not morbid or even really about the inevitability of our own demises. It’s a cute, cold joke, about how lovely deep black crepe can be against the skin. It’s a good pun in reflection of the root of the sartorial event, too: “to be in mourning” is a pun, itself. Your feelings in your body, your body wrapped in mourning clothes. I appreciate the double-talk.

The visible feelings mourning clothes symbolize is a conversation America mostly misses out on now: we’re constantly talking about what could kill us, and sometimes death, but often it feels like more of a performance of words (see: the recent ebola panic) than an actual act or embodiment of feeling. What I like about mourning clothes is the uniformity and solidarity they gave to those who wore them. Mourning clothes also have pace, like wearing them would help you progress in your emotional state. Women wore mourning for years at a time—Queen Victoria was perpetually mourning throughout her life, but the “average” woman mourned for two and a half years, according to The Mourner’s Dance by Katherine Ashenburg: heavy black crepe for one year and one day, lesser crepe for nine months, three months in black silk, and six months in half-mourning of greys, violets, and whites (with plenty of gold jewels).

Of course, even mourning was deeply sexist—men wore mourning clothes for only about three months, and it might have only been additional black mourning accessories or a band on his suit. For women, not only was the timeline of grief stricter, the ways in which you could fail were also infinitely varied. If you presented your grief improperly, you risked public embarrassment. Women had to perform their grief “correctly”—there was, in fact, a right way to feel, and it involved the proper silk. The length of mourning also varied depending on blood relations, longer grief for closer family ties—as though love could be so easily measured, so reliably translated.

Mourning clothes fell out of fashion in America by the 1930s, and the exhibit’s timeline ends 15 years earlier. Of course, mourning itself doesn’t end, but it’s more private now, more static. Life in the USA is statistically longer than it was in the 1800s and 1900s, but the way we interpret that visually has changed—and so has the way we handled it. The exhibit briefly discusses the reasons mourning clothes fell out of fashion: class division in terms of the expense of mourning clothes, women’s resentment for the demands of their mourning period in comparison to those of men, concern for children’s trauma over death. It also offers insight into the constant negotiation between all sides of mourning culture: quotes against mourning clothes versus quotes earnestly describing their importance.

My favorite aspect of Death Becomes Her wasn’t any of these things, actually, but the small collection of jewelry in the back room of the exhibit. There was a locket of hair, a glittering diamond pin shining “In Memoriam.” These tiny keepsakes, perfectly preserved and glowing in the spotlight. My family collects these pins, so this moment of the exhibit hit me—this kind of death and loss only felt relatable as public performance in these tiny inch-wide patches of gold. My only criticism of the exhibit was that it could have included more photographs. There were only a few, and so the grief felt somewhat impersonal. And grief, even when it’s being publicly performed, is always personal.

On the way out, there was a Julia Ward Hall quote from 1846 mounted on the wall that struck me as particularly timely, given our current culture’s own lack of ritualized mourning (and my dad’s own funeral preferences): “My mourning has been quite an inconvenience to me, this summer. I had just spent all the money I could afford for my summer clothes, and was forced to spend $30 more for black dresses. The black clothes, however, seem to me very idle things, and I shall leave word in my will that no one shall wear them for me.”

A few years ago my dad handed me a Hawaiian shirt and smiled. “No black at my funeral. Only flowers.”

Arabelle Sicardi is a fashion and beauty writer for the likes of Rookie, Teen Vogue, Refinery29 and The Style Con. She likes makeup, cyborgs, and bad fashion puns.

Images via Metropolitan Museum of Art. Death Becomes Her is on exhibit through February 1, 2015.

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