Exhibition Review: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City – October 21, 2014–February 1, 2015.
This Costume Institute exhibition explores the aesthetic development and cultural implications of American and European mourning fashions of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The exhibition is situated in The Costume Institute, deep in the bowls of this vast museum. Whilst it’s not a ‘headliner’ in the manner of Alexander McQueen, I found the lack of signage frustrating – it takes some determination to find it – is this a sign that fashion doesn’t matter at the Met? The visitor walks down a set of stairs and there is a large round sign on entry entitled ‘Death Becomes Her’.
On entering the gallery the viewer sees a number of raised white podiums on which stand small clusters of female mannequins wearing mourning dress in chronological order from the 1830’s through to the beginning of the 20th century. There is no natural light and given the subject matter, probably appropriate and suitably sombre music plays throughout. The walls are black and on them are displayed numerous quotes in white lettering from etiquette books and personal letters about mourning dress:
Black is becoming: and young widow, fair, plump, and smiling with their roguish eyes sparkling under their black are very seducing.
The Illustrated Manners, 1835
This was a device that worked well initially as it allowed an eclectic mix of quotes and reflections on mourning dress, however, these texts faded in and out after around 30 seconds to be replaced by additional text. I thought it unnecessary and a little infuriating and overheard some visitors commenting on how annoying this was so I was clearly not the only one.
There was an extraordinary mannequin of Queen Victoria who it is well known, wore mourning for the majority of her life but in order to represent her full figure, the mannequin looked like she had pillows stuffed up her dress. Whilst we are familiar with the plump figure of HRH in mourning dress, because it was a headless mannequin and bore no resemblance to her, it just looked clumsy.
Although the clothes were displayed on a white podium, it was hard to see the detail because they were all black, so any embroidery or beading was hard to see. There were quite detailed descriptions of the dresses with more text on how and why mourning dress was worn. What struck me was that all these clothes were worn by middle/upper class women (and it was all women apart from one man and one child). So the clothes themselves were high end garments – Lucile, Charles Worth and similar. I could see no representations of working class mourning dress – we learnt that women of all classes dyed their clothes when they were required to go into mourning and that it was a costly exercise so it was a shame not to see examples of clothes worn by women with little or no income.
Off to the side of the main gallery was a smaller room in which mourning hats, pictures and jewellery were displayed. I felt the thread had been lost and would have preferred to see them displayed alongside the costumes to keep the flow – a whole wall of the fading quotes could have been lost to make room for the mourning accessories and would have strengthened the narrative. I think these were a crucial edition – the display enabled one to see plenty of detail and as with most fashion exhibitions you should leave wanting to own at least one item. Whilst few of the dresses called to me, some of the jet jewellery definitely did.
Overall I liked the concept but felt there were some missed opportunities. An exhibition comprised almost entirely of black dresses is a challenge and there were some fine examples of mourning dress. However, there a little too much going on – music, disappearing quotes and an ante-chamber that should have been placed in the body of the exhibition. It didn’t quite come together for me.
Belinda Naylor, Fashion Curator
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