In the age of social media, rarely does anything have a single name. A hashtag becomes attached to most events, places, and people and functions as a secondary form of identification as it enters the whirlpool of cyberspace. This is true of the Anna Wintour Costume Center’s exhibition Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning with its hashtag #DeathBecomesHer.
As I looked at #DeathBecomesHer printed underneath the title of the exhibition, I questioned how it altered the viewer’s experience. The hashtag allowed the viewer to have a voice and sense of authority in a discussion, albeit in an endless, massive one. On the other hand, #DeathBecomesHer also satisfies curator Harold Koda’s desire to promote his exhibition by expanding the exhibition beyond the confines of the Costume Center’s physical walls.
#DeathBecomesHer was not the only attempt to make the exhibition more interactive and not just a handful of haunting mannequins embalmed in clothes of the dead. Quotes from works of 19th century etiquette books, magazines, literature, and diaries were projected on the walls. These quotes vanished with the projected shadow of a Victorian woman, but then reappeared after her passing. The metaphorical projection of the widow veiling and unveiling these quotes was clever but may have caused viewers to linger longer than they would have if the quotes were not shrouded by the mourning widow. One viewer pushed me aside as he tried to read the disappearing Edith Wharton quote.
The quotes that Koda selected conveyed that mourning dress was influenced by class, gender roles, and social mores. Quotes such as “mourning garments…are often a certain respectability to the person who should be a mourner but is not” supported the subjective statement that mourning dress was more a form of propriety. Some quotes suggested that mourning dress confirmed women’s roles, like the passage from Edith Wharton’s New Year’s Day: “She seemed to see people and life through the confusing blur of the long crape veil in which it was a widow’s duty to shroud her affliction.” While other quotes revealed that mourning attire solidified class stratification and become a financial concern to many: “There is probably another reason for not donning mourning, it is very expensive now.” The projected quotes gave the exhibition a more critical edge as it attempted to look at mourning attire through the lens of gender, economics, and culture.
The design of the exhibition complemented the melancholic, dreary title of Death Becomes Her. A diaphanous, veil-like gray curtain sectioned off the mannequins into tiny clusters of two, three, four or five. Unlike Dance & Fashion, Death Becomes Her seemed very sparse with the small amount of costumes on display. Since there were not many mannequins on display it was easy to piece together which information card belonged to which mannequin. The dim lights along with Gabriel Faure’s Requiem Op. 48 augmented the ominous atmosphere. Though the exhibition was dark, the mannequins were not swallowed by the dimness of the room since they were placed on a white stage with strategically placed lighting. The mannequins themselves engendered an element of death with their icy, statuesque faces of white plastic. There was an artificial liveliness to the mannequins with their white curly hair wigs of various coiffures, their titled heads, and delicate hand gestures that epitomized Victorian propriety, positioned as if posing for a portrait.
However, not all of the costumes fell into the category of somber mourning garments. Two glittering, sequined mannequins reigned in a private section apart from the main stage. There was a crowd gathered around these two evening dresses expressive of “the opulence of the court’s tones of half mourning.” One of these evening dresses was worn by Queen Alexandra the year following Queen Victoria’s death. The exhibition was somewhat attentive to mourning dress and aristocracy as it also showed mourning attire worn by Queen Victoria. Unlike FIT’S exhibition Exposed: The History of Lingerie, Death Becomes Her did stray from using the ideal, modelesque mannequin by incorporating a mannequin that was true to Queen Victoria’s plump, stocky figure. However, Death Becomes Her only deviated from the miniature Victorian silhouette for the Queen.
The information labels regarding the garments were presented at foot of stage and provided extensive information on the type of garment, the year it was made and worn along with a detailed description of the make and the designer, listing names such as The House of Worth and retailers of mourning goodas James McCreery & Co. The labels included passages from magazines like Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. A clipping from Vogue underpinned the idea that mourning attire had a part in the volatile forces of fashion: “Black is more than ever the favorite color of fashion.”
The information cards gave significant insight into the double-standard of mourning dress. Many of the descriptions seemed to imply that the mourning dress sought to control the autonomous widow whose unclaimed, alluring sexuality and body was a threat to the stability of a patriarchal society, Koda himself writes of the widow, “As a woman without material constraints, she was often imagined as a potential threat to the social order.” The exhibition depicted how female modesty and chastity were imposed through mourning dress that emulated “the humble habits of nuns.” Death Becomes Her did more than just skim the surface of mourning dress history by successfully examining the ways this type of dress affected the lives of women.
“A Widow and Her Friends” by Charles Dana Gibson, placed in an adjacent room full of mourning dress accessories, photographs and fashion plates, seemed to suggest the policing and containment of the threatening widow. “A Widow and Her Friends” follows the life a young widow or “a sexually alluring and knowing figure who is potentially disruptive to the prevailing social order.” The illustration ends with the widow “unable to find a clear place for herself in society” and in a convent. This collection of prints, along with other quotes, photographs, style manuals, and illustrations, and even the title Death Becomes Her explored the problematic ideals of female modesty and chastity that mourning dress embodied and enforced. Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning left me questioning if death really does become her when she veils herself in mourning attire? Does a woman figuratively die when donning this dress of death?