Most of the time, a room full of people in New York City dressed head-to-toe in black wouldn't be something to talk about. Unless you find yourself basement of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, surrounded by an exhibition of mourning clothes called "Death Becomes Her."

The Anna Wintour Costume Center, a new wing of the museum named for Vogue’s iconic editor-in-chief, opened in May and currently displays the black gowns worn by mourners between 1815 and 1915, including a gown worn by Queen Victoria. The room is small and dark, and a person could get claustrophobic from staying there for too long. In that sense, it’s a little like the experience of mourning itself.

Mourning and special clothing have long gone together, dating back to biblical times, when the bereft wore sackcloth. We might imagine it as something like burlap, but it was actually made of goat hair. Wearing sackcloth was an outward expression of the inward reality of grief; it is a direct antecedent of modern-era mourning attire.

In Genesis 37, when Joseph's brothers sell him into slavery and trick their father into thinking he was dead, "Jacob tore his garments, and put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son many days."

King David instructed Joab to "tear your clothes, and put on sackcloth, and mourn over Abner" in 2 Samuel. As Abner's killer, Joab would have worn sackcloth both as mourning garb and as a form of official (if not deeply felt) repentance for his deception and sin. Mordecai wore sackcloth in Esther 4 to mourn the edict signed by King Xerxes that would destroy all the Jews in the kingdom, going "through the city, wailing with a loud and bitter cry."

Similarly, under ...

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