Macabre, Gothic Fashion Was Around For Way Longer Than You Probably Thought.

Between 1815 and 1915, grief, mourning and the macabre reached a fashionable pinnacle the likes of which, even today, were never seen. The century saw some considerably grim events, including the horrors of slavery, the devastation of the Civil Warm and many diseases claiming the lives of children. There was also a fashionable fascination with all things morbid in the Victorian period — think curio cabinets full of preserved animals and gothic novels full of monstrous apparitions.

All this culminated into a fashion trend surrounding the tradition of mourning. When a loved one died, their relatives would wear black clothing and, in some cases, refrain from participating in activities that might seem “happy.” Depending on the relation, the mourning period could range up to two years. Some widows wore mourning clothes for the rest of their lives. Consider them the original goth kids.

Today, these codified, public displays of mourning might seem strange, and even a bit distasteful. Yet this was quite common in the 19th and early 20th centuries. People saw it as a way of respecting the dead, and seeing someone wearing black was a signal to others that they had just experienced a loss. (Unlike today, black was not a “basic” and was not typically everyday wear.) Not everyone participated in the mourning tradition, but many seemed to find comfort in it. Due to this, mourning fashion (known in their day as “widow’s weeds”) became a booming business. It was helped by the industrial revolution, too, because black dye became more available, and middle-class people could afford the extra clothing. 

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is currently hosting an exhibit, Death Becomes Her, on mourning garb from this period. The show, held in the Anna Wintour Costume Center, features a collection of mourning gowns, accessories, and jewelry. It also includes media from the time depicting mourning practices. Though subdued in color, the gowns are every bit as beautiful as any other Victorian gown. They featured lace, beading, and yards and yards of fabric. The exhibit covers a century, so the clothes not only show the mourning practices, but also how they changed — and loosened — over time.

On the left is a woman’s and man’s mourning attire. On the right is a mourning gown owned by Queen Victoria, who wore mourning garb for the rest of her life after the death of her husband, Prince Albert. Incidentally, Victoria is also responsible for the popularity of the white wedding gown.

Mourning attire was made for men, but the mourning culture was mainly composed of women. They seemed to respond to the “romantic” aspect of grief.

Mourning was not just an expression of personal grief, but a social cue as well. In this somewhat satirical illustration by Charles Dana Gibson, a black dress means not only a recent death, but also an available woman.

Mourning attire could also be seasonal.

Despite the dark color, the intricate beading and sheer sleeves of this gown are definitely a fashion statement. In these days, wearing black was not for everyday use, and was not considered a “basic” color the way it is today.

Jewelry, detailing, and accessories were also included in mourning clothes.

A mourning hat, complete with dead bird, from 1895.

Jewelry was included in mourning attire, and was typically made of jet for its black color. Jet is a form of fossilized coal.

A snake brooch, specifically for mourning purposes.

Jewelry included brooches made with the hair of the deceased. While this might seem morbid today, it was viewed as a normal, even touching practice.

Purple was used as a color in “half-mourning” gowns. Half-mourning was a transitional state when people were emerging from the mourning process and easing back into everyday wear.

The gray gown on the right is actually a wedding gown, made just after the Civil War. While the bride had not, apparently, experienced a loss personally, the tragic state of the country made her wedding a relatively somber affair. At this point, the pervasiveness of death was so absolute that even weddings were tinged with it. The whole country was in mourning.

However, by the turn of the century, attitudes about death were becoming less oppressive. This purple sequined gown from 1902 is technically a mourning gown, but you probably wouldn’t have guessed that.

Attitudes about death have changed drastically since this time, but are no more complex. During the Victorian period, death was real and personal, with child mortality rates and infectious diseases more common than today. Because death was such an intimate part of life, it wasn’t considered strange or morbid to have jewelry made of the hair of a deceased relative. Today, with vaccinations and better medical knowledge, death is a little more removed for the average person, and maybe that’s why our fascination with it continues. And if you’ve ever gone through a goth phase, you have the culture of mourning to thank. 

Death Becomes Her is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through February 1, 2015.

Via Allison Meier for Hyperallergic

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