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30 shades of grey, black and mauve featured in Death Becomes Her

Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, by Karin Willis
Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, by Karin Willis
Photo: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, by Karin Willis

Proceed with caution, slippery when wet, dangerous curves ahead, and other warning signs were the likely fashion statements made by the Victorians and Edwardians who wrapped their widows up in ominous attire.

“The veiled widow could elicit sympathy as well as predatory male advances. As a woman of sexual experience without marital constraints, she was often imagined as a potential threat to the social order,”
says Harold Koda, curator in charge of The Costume Institute which is readying Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire, its first exhibition in seven years.

“The predominantly black palette of mourning dramatizes the evolution of period silhouettes and the increasing absorption of fashion ideals into this most codified of etiquettes,” Koda continues.

“Elaborate standards of mourning set by royalty spread across class lines via fashion magazines and the prescribed clothing was readily available for purchase through mourning ‘warehouses’ that proliferated in European and American cities by mid-century,” adds the show’s assistant curator Jessica Regan.

Approximately 30 ensembles—including mourning gowns worn by Queen Victoria and Queen Alexandra—will be organized chronologically from 1815 to 1915 to sartorially relay the status of widows as they gradually graduated from black to grey to mauve, depending on the duration of their bereavement.

Fashion plates, photographs and daguerreotypes as well as jewelry and other accessories will be on view in the Anna Wintour Costume Center’s Carl and Iris Barrel Apfel Gallery while the main Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch Gallery will feature high fashion silhouettes depicting the evolution of mourning wear—from modest simplicity to over-the-top ornamentation.

Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire opens on October 21, 2014 and runs through February 1, 2015 at the Anna Wintour Costume Center at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on 1000 Fifth Avenue in New York.

Visit for updated information on the exhibition and its related programs.

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