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 the Roman Empire, wealthy citizens in mourning wore the toga pulla, the same shape as the toga of daily wear but in a dark gray or brown fabric. In medieval Europe, mourners wore white, a practice still observed by modern Hindus and in some Asian countries.
But the period we associate most with mourning clothing is the Victorian Era, with its heavy black crapes (spelled with an "a," to indicate that it is used in mourning attire) and hats and ruffles.
In the Victorian era, the heft and color of mourning attire corresponded to the amount of grief a person was supposed to experience. Take this advice from Cassell’s, a popular magazine of household tips from 1835:
After the funeral deep mourning is worn by the widower or widow for about a year. The same is also the case with mourning for a father or mother, sons or daughter, sister or brother. Occasionally, at the end of that period, half mourning is worn by the widow or widower for about six months longer.
The author went on with instructions about appropriate stationery, what food to serve to the undertaker, and how wide a mourner’s hat brim should be. Full mourning attire was always black, and usually made of silk or bombazine and trimmed in crape. Half-mourning attire could be gray or purple, much like some of the beautiful gowns on display at the Met. One of my favorites was a gray silk dress, trimmed in black crape with fringe on the bottom of the bodice and a full Victorian skirt. The buttons ran up a crape strip to the throat, and a gray bonnet was tied in a neat bow above. It looked like something a demure Scarlett O’Hara would have worn.
There is now not much in the way of mourning attire, besides the generally accepted etiquette of wearing black to a funeral. Some funerals subvert that norm and ask mourners to wear bright colors or Hawaiian shirts in the style of the deceased. We don't have people make dresses for us any longer, for the most part, so our wardrobe doesn't have clothing set aside for this or that occasion—a little black dress can be worn to a cocktail party or a funeral. Our traditions of mourning, like our society, have become more individualistic and rife with options.
Part of knowing what it mean to mourn in biblical times was also knowing the freedom that came when mourning ended. "You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy," David wrote to God in Psalm 30. There was a physical heaviness about being in the Costume Center at the Met, a slowed pace of breathing and communal hush that was lifted as soon as we walked upstairs into the museum lobby. It was a move, to put it simplistically, from darkness to light.
Mourning clothes were very expensive; sometimes prohibitively so. The wall at the Met exhibit was lit up with passages written about mourning attire: "My mourning has been quite an inconvenience to me, this summer,” wrote Julia Ward Howe, author of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." “I had just spent all the money I could afford for my summer clothes, and was forced to spend $30 more for black dresses. The black clothes, however, seem to me very idle things, and I shall leave word in my will that no one shall wear them for me."
It is romantic and sentimental thinking to propose a return to wearing mourning attire for the sake of resuming a stronger communal bond. Even without it, what we wear when we mourn is one of the ways we communicate the state of our interior life to the world around us.
I attended the funeral of a family friend last year in a black dress from Target. I remember buying it for $40. I remember wearing it to the wedding of two dear friends, and to a work event, and on a nice dinner date with my husband. But since the funeral, the dress has hung in the back of my closet. It feels too infused with death to take it out for a night on the town.
The things we wear are still just things, and will carry only as much meaning as we allow them. Mourning is a good reason to see the everyday infused with meaning—as we miss the physical incarnation of the person we mourn, we recognize their scent in the closet or call their phone to hear their voice recording one more time. We live in a world of things, and part of their redemption is investing them with significance. Our forebears wore sackcloth to signal their grief; we wear black, which is the absence of light. We don't have a period of mourning set aside, but we do have therapists and books about grief and plenty of other contemporary trappings that make me glad to live in 2014.
When you stand in the middle of the room of mourning clothes and look at the mannequins at the Met, you can almost imagine them stepping off the platform to go about their business—shopping, cooking, hosting, working. Even then, the mourning clothes didn't symbolize a special protection against the little things that needed to be attended to every day. That's one thing that hasn't changed.
Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire will be on display at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York through February 1, 2015.