The Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute‘s first fall exhibition in seven years focuses on, of all things, death—but it’s far less morbid than one might think. The show, “Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire,” is arranged chronologically from 1815 through 1915 with about 30 looks (two of which are men’s-specific and one is for a little girl) that demonstrate how the mourner’s wardrobe evolved. The ritual of mourner’s dress was expressed via fabrics: “Very shiny fabrics were not considered appropriate for mourning in the early stages,” said assistant curator Jessica Regan. “In later stages of mourning, one could reintroduce more lustrous textiles like taffetas and moiré.”
Indeed, the exhibition breaks down the ritual and social convention by showing how clothes were designed specifically for mourners. The “mourning industry” developed in the 1840s as stores opened solely for the purpose of selling mourning textiles and accessories (bonnets, shawls, veils, gloves, etc.). The exhibition also showcases more “high-fashion” dresses from the 1870s as well as jewelry like lockets featuring images of the deceased and even some of their hair. For curator-in-charge Harold Koda, the purpose of the exhibition is “an opportunity to show how 19th-century high-fashion evolution overlaid with an important social condition, a protocol for ritualizing social interactions. It’s both a cultural phenomenon as well as purely a fashion phenomenon.” To see the phenomenon for yourself, head to the Costume Institute at the Met starting tomorrow, through February 1 or click through our slideshow above.