[Another salvaged draft — took a while, but I think my slide show now works
In 2014, the Anna Wintour Costume Center of the Metropolitan Museum in New York City opened : “Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire,” which explored “the aesthetic development and cultural implications of mourning fashions of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. . . . The calendar of bereavement’s evolution and cultural implications is illuminated through women’s clothing and accessories, showing the progression of appropriate fabrics from mourning crape to corded silks, and the later introduction of color with shades of gray and mauve.” See a slide show of gallery views here
The following essay and slide show are also from the Metropolitan Museum, using mourning dress as a search term. The essay is comprised of (lightly edited by me) text accompanying the images; the slide show images were downloaded from the site. I choose dresses prior to 1900. All the dresses are American — homemade, dressmaker, manufactured.
By the late Middle Ages in Europe, black had connotations of mourning, though it could also suggest worldly elegance and luxury, in part due to the costliness of black dye. Broadly worn as the color of grief during the nineteenth century, black could be perceived as both humble and sober or sophisticated and becoming. A shade of true deep black that did not quickly fade toward blue or brown was the mark of a fine-quality textile and the ideal for mourning attire. In their 1856 catalogue, Besson and Son’s Mourning Store of Philadelphia assured prospective buyers of the quality of their black goods, promising only “what is of the proper shade of black.”
During the first half of the nineteenth century, the growing circulation of fashion magazines offering guidance on appropriate mourning styles increased demand for mourning attire, which became an indicator of middle-class status. Those unable to afford the purchase of a new mourning wardrobe could dye existing garments and accessories black, while others turned to a range of retailers. Shops specializing in mourning goods had existed since the eighteenth century, though by the mid-nineteenth century they operated on a greatly enhanced scale, aided by the mechanization of the textile industry, which permitted the mass-production of fabrics. From the 1840s, mourning warehouses—grand purveyors of mourning goods—were founded in many European and American cities, making such merchandise widely available. These establishments offered a variety of mourning fabrics and accessories, and many also offered the sewing of finished garments, emphasizing their ability to work at great speed.
“Have been all this week in a sad task making up my mourning for my dear Papa & today for the first time put it on. The sight of this black dress brings the cause why I wear it more fully to my mind, if possible brings him more vividly before me.” Thus Catherine Ann Edmondston (1823–1875) of North Carolina wrote in her diary about the role her mourning dress played in facing the death of her father in 1861. It was both tangible evidence of the reality of his passing and a means of keeping his memory at the forefront of her mind. For some, mourning attire was not simply a symbol of loss. Rather, the making and wearing of mourning played a role in accepting death, preserving memory, and working through one’s grief.
Black mourning dress reached its peak during the reign of Queen Victoria (1819-1901) of the United Kingdom in the second half of the 19th century. Queen Victoria wore mourning from the death of her husband, Prince Albert (1819-1861), until her own death. With these standards in place, it was considered a social requisite to don black from anywhere between three months to two and a half years while grieving for a loved one or monarch. The stringent social custom existed for all classes and was available at all price points. Those who could not afford the change of dress often altered and dyed their regular garments black. The amount of black to be worn was dictated by several different phases of mourning; full mourning ensembles were solid black while half mourning allowed the wearer to add a small amount of white or purple.
Mourning clothing tended to follow the fashionable silhouette of the period. Fabrics, trims, and accessories distinguished mourning clothing from purely fashionable black attire. The early stages of mourning dress, typically consisting of matte blacks and mourning crape, yielded to a broader range of black fabrics, including silks of some luster such as taffeta, poult de soie, and moiré. A dulled finish suitable for the sobriety of mourning could be achieved by using wool or cotton fibers or through weave structure and finishing techniques. The striated texture of a ribbed or crimped textile was less reflective than the unbroken—and therefore glossy—face of a satin. Although the watered surface of a moiré might seem overly lustrous or luxurious for mourning, it was a fabric commonly sold by mourning retailers, and ensembles similar to this moiré dress with matching shawl were advertised for lighter mourning, especially during the 1850s and 1860s.