Death Becomes Her

To say that I have an affinity for period pieces would be about the understatement of the century, and the only thing I love more than watching them is getting to do them myself. (On a completely unrelated note, if anyone knows how it might be possible for me to be Keira Knightley for a day, I just might give you my first born child. Don't tell my fiance.)

 My all-time favorite costume: an 1880s-style gown, borrowed from The Metropolitan Opera for HSRT's  The Hypochondriac.

My all-time favorite costume: an 1880s-style gown, borrowed from The Metropolitan Opera for HSRT's The Hypochondriac.

I've always found clothing to be an interesting access point for character work. On the most obvious level, costumes give the audience subtle clues about what a character is like: how does this person want to be perceived? What is their social status (or desired social status)? Are they fighting the status quo? Are they rebellious? Do they not care? But from an actor's perspective, shedding my own clothing and donning someone else's inevitably makes me feel very different; just as walking down the street in a hoodie and boots feels very different from walking down the street in a look that's been curated, putting on a character's clothes helps me to access who they are from the outside in.

This is especially true of period costumes and all that they entail: corsets, stockings, petticoats, paniers, bustles, and other accoutrements so elaborate that they take an extra set of hands to get into. First and foremost, the sheer impracticality of the clothing informs (and limits) how you move through space. But perhaps more interestingly, small details provide very specific information as a result of a dress code that was far more extensive than what we abide by today.

To that end, I always jump at the chance to see authentic period clothing in person, and in recent months I've had the opportunity to see two exhibitions about fashion for two very different occasions: wedding and mourning.

In August I ventured to London's Victoria & Albert museum to see a collection, aptly named Wedding Dresses 1775 - 2014. It features seventy gowns ranging from the eighteenth century, when expensive textiles were more important than the design of the gowns themselves, to the two World Wars, when dresses were necessarily more utilitarian, and finally to edgier, more contemporary pieces like Dita Von Teese's purple Vivienne Westwood and Gwen Stefani's white and pink ombre Galliano. Unfortunately the V&A did now allow photography in this particular exhibition, but it's worth perusing its blog on the V&A website, and the exhibition itself runs until March 15 should you find yourself in London.

Four months later I found myself surprisingly fascinated by what I assumed would be little more than a collection of drab black dresses when I visited the Met Museum's exhibition of mourning attire from 1815 to 1915, cheekily titled Death Becomes Her. While a wedding dress was designed to make maximum impact during one event (less on the wedding day itself than when the bride and groom were first publicly presented as a couple), mourning for women could, depending on their relationship to the deceased, require up to two years of full mourning, half mourning, and ordinary mourning, all in accordance to very strict etiquette. When you pair the length of mourning periods with mortality rates of the 19th century, it's no wonder that mourning attire is such a huge part of our sartorial history.

Black is becoming; and young widows, fair, plump, and smiling, with their roguish eyes sparkling under their black veils are very seducing.
— Robert De Valcourt, The Illustrated Manners Book, 1855
 From C.D. Gibson's 1901 cartoon,  A Widow and Her Friends   Subtitle: "Mr. Waddles arrives late and finds her dance card filled."

From C.D. Gibson's 1901 cartoon, A Widow and Her Friends

Subtitle: "Mr. Waddles arrives late and finds her dance card filled."

And drab, they were not. Many young widows found themselves on the market for a new husband, and while it was considered inappropriate to remarry in the year following her husband's death, a widow was all the more desirable for being both available for marriage and sexually experienced. Even common etiquette acknowledged the allure of the widow and her effect on men. A projection on the exhibition wall quoted M.L. Rayne in her 1881 book, Gems of Deportment and Hints on Etiquette: "Her deportment should be grave and discreet, particularly in the presence of gentlemen, who will seek her society; as there is a charm and fascination in the manner and conversation of a widow which is known and appreciated by the other sex." This subtle display of nineteenth-century sexism makes the widow responsible for a gentleman's behavior. Same as it ever was.

That said, although women were encouraged to dress with "nun-like austerity," they continued to adhere to fashionable silhouettes and fabrics, and although they were black, still included ornate detail. An excellent example is this mourning dress from 1903, complete with black lace, pleated crepe, and a black cross so ostentatious that it is almost tongue-in-cheek.

 American Mourning Dress, ca. 1903

American Mourning Dress, ca. 1903

 French evening dress, ca. 1902

French evening dress, ca. 1902

As time passed they were permitted to add small accents of gray and white, and as they moved into latter stages of mourning could dress entirely in grays, mauves, and purples, until they finally phased back into their normal attire.

Come World War I, as death was a threat looming over every family and more women were expected to join the work force, mourning attire began to be seen as unnecessary and self-indulgent. According to a 1918 Vogue Magazine, "Women's part in war means, not only giving herself and her time and her work, but her loved ones as well. Women felt, and rightly, that the indulgence of personal grief, even to the extent of wearing mourning, was incompatible with their duty to themselves, to their country, and to the men who cheerfully laid down their lives."

Unfortunately this exhibition closed on February 1st, but they did allow photography (hooray!) so enjoy the gallery below.  I also can't go to The Met without visiting their collection of European Decorative Arts, so I threw those in for good measure.

The Met's Costume Institute will reopen on May 7 with their new exhibition, China: Through the Looking Glass.