Tag Archives: mourning dress

“Death Becomes Her” and Other October Musings

Anyone who knows me in any capacity should recognise the amount of envious glee I feel at the announcement of the Met’s latest special exhibit: “Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire“.

I adore 19th century mourning.  The material history associated with it, the impact on social mores and customs, the preoccupation with death it engendered, and the sheer visual impact of it sets my little gothy heart all a-flutter.  I doubt I’ll have the funds to make it up to New York in time — the exhibit opens the day before my wedding and closes right as spring semester kicks up — but it is a thing of glory.

I mean, look at these clothes:

Mourning ensemble, 1870-72; The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Mourning dress, cira 1903; The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Mourning dress, 1867; The Metropolitan Museum of Art

American mourning dress, circa 1845; the Metropolitan Museum of Art

American mourning dress, circa 1848; the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Just look at the quality of that silk and the delicate mesh mitts!

Mourning parasol, 1895-1900; the Metropolitan Museum of Art

In a related vein of all things somewhat macabre, I was alerted to a fascinating article about Cross Bones Graveyard in London.  Originally an unconsecrated burying yard for the prostitutes that characterised London’s South Bank in 16th century, it has taken on a social dimension as a place amidst its gleaming upscale surroundings to remember the forgotten, outcast dead.

In death, the liminal sex workers of London have come to occupy a larger space than they ever did in life.  It’s absolutely worth a read as we move into the Halloween season.

Halloween, and its associated liturgical holidays of All Saints Day and All Souls, have historically been about affirming the place of the dead in community — both as members of the heavenly church and as remembered former members of the church militant here on earth.  New Orleans has a vibrant tradition surrounding All Saints Day — La Toussaint as it was brought over from France — and much of it reflects the collision between cultures that happened in the Crescent City.  White-washing family tombs, cleaning away debris and dirt, lighting candles, decorating the tombs, and sharing a meal amongst them all characterise the day.

The dead loom large in New Orleans, but never so much as in October.  It’s impossible to ignore the cemeteries of New Orleans, which is the thing I’ve liked most about them.  Unlike the manicured memorial parks that are increasingly popular around the country, the cemeteries of New Orleans remain visible and retain their dignity, etched into the landscape and staking the claims of the dead among the still living.

David Grunfeld; The Times-Picayune archive

Travel!

I’ve just come back from a week in Louisiana, and it has been a fantastic trip.  I’m always completely in love with Louisiana, and with New Orleans in particular (though the heat, not so much — I think I’ve been infected with Midwestern preferences for climate), but this trip was really special.  Not only did I present at the Louisiana Studies Conference this past weekend at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, LA (pronounced NACK-uh-tish, honestly), I got the phenomenal opportunity to spend a morning in the Louisiana State Museum‘s textile archives in New Orleans.  The curator, Wayne Phillips, showed me their extensive collection of hair and mourning jewellery, as well as an early 1850s gown that may have been mourning.

Hair jewellery is not really my speciality, and honestly, I had forgotten about it until Wayne brought it out to show me.  The museum’s collection is extensive, largely because unlike other jewellery, hair pieces went out of fashion abruptly and were retired into people’s attics and cupboards rather than being thrown away.  (I suspect people felt rather bad about the idea of throwing out a literal piece of Great Aunt Marie!)  The museum started collecting the hair jewellery pieces from its early days in the opening decades of the twentieth century, and they vary from simple brooches without much provenance to elaborate pieces tied to important people in Louisiana history.  Some are very plain or small, and some, like a French piece worked with gold, hair, and garnets, are incredibly elaborate.  But all have the same purpose: to at once remember (if not mourn) one’s loved ones, and to carry a piece of them on your person.  While some pieces were not mourning, many were, including sometimes dates of death, or images of mourning worked in hair, most commonly urns, weeping willows, acorns, or forget-me-nots.  They were all stunning, if some of them struck me as a little creepy, most particularly a ring made of woven hair that would have been worn directly next to the skin.  That’s a level of commitment I can’t really imagine, personally.

However, the dress was a highlight.  The gown lacked a good provenance, but it was useful for me in looking at construction details and the complexity of the dress.  It’s a silk taffeta piece, very light-weight (as I suspected would be common in Louisiana), but in poor, poor condition.  It does show some period repairs, suggesting that this gown was worn and re-worn rather than being thrown away, and it hints to me that perhaps this was a more bourgeois garment than one belonging to the Louisiana social aristocracy.  The skirt is slim, suggesting early 1850s, and rather than pleating at the waist, the skirt is made of shaped panels.  The hem shows wear and re-lining, and the cuffs are hand-stitched.  But let’s face it, you want pictures, don’t you?

Here’s the dress in its entirety. Notice the subtle floral pattern woven into the taffeta. Really stunning in the light. And yes, it is as small as it looks.

The hem shows wear and repair, as can be seen here, and was obviously hand-basted. The lining is cotton, and was once dyed black, but has faded to this coffee colour, as all natural dyes on cotton are prone to do.

This shows a repair to the skirt of the dress. The colour has been lightened to show detail. The cotton thread has faded to that familiar brown colour as well.

The bodice closes up to the neck with tiny hook-and-eye closures, and shows beautiful decorative pleating. The fan shape is lovely, but very simple, and the sloping, dropped shoulders are bang-on for the early 1850s.

 

Here is the hand-turned cuff, showing more faded thread. I found it interesting that the sleeves were so fitted and so simple, another suggestion of mourning.

 

A self-fabric belt meant to go over the waist of the dress, really simple, and it shows just how small the waist was!

I can’t express how exciting it was to work with this garment and to really have the chance to examine it.  The dress isn’t in the Museum’s permanent collection — quite frankly, with its sketchy provenance and in such a terrible condition, it’s unlikely to become an acquisition.  The cost of restoring the gown would be astronomical.  However, it is one of the only antebellum gowns they have, aside from some early 1800s pieces, and it might very well be mourning, another point in its favour.  I suspect it was indeed mourning, given its simplicity and the evidence of re-wear, but it’s a theory, not a concrete fact.  Still, isn’t it a lovely old thing?

I’ll probably be talking a lot more about my trip and some of the things I saw while there — especially the 1850 House Museum and the woman who built the structure in which it resides, the Baroness de Pontalba — but I had to share the most exciting bits first.