Archive for March, 2016

Mourning Research

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January 20, 2015 (another post I have not posted!)

 Yesterday I visited the Costume Institute exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum in New York called “Death Becomes Her, A Century of Mourning Attire”. The clothes were amazing – such detail in black garments reflecting the fashion of different ages from 1815 to 1915. It also reflected the etiquette of mourning and what was required – most specifically for women, as they bore the most responsibility for visibly expressing the mourning and grief for their whole family – as well as reflecting their social standing and “level of respectability”. Sometimes children would wear white instead of black – the absence of color – with black trim.

I didn’t know that wearing black to represent mourning dates all the way back to the late Middle Ages. In the 1800’s the rules of mourning etiquette were very prescribed. The periods for what to wear were divided into stages from “unrelieved black” for first stage mourning moving to black and white, or gray and mauve, which reflected the “easing of one’s grief” – moving from middle mourning into “lighter mourning”. How long the periods lasted depended upon the relationship of the deceased to the mourners. A widow would wear black for two to four years in deepest mourning for her husband. For the mourning of a father or mother black was worn for one year, and for a brother or sister for six months. Just putting on the black garments reminded those of why they were doing so as “tangible evidence of the reality of their husband’s or family member’s passing, a way to accept the death, to keep the memory alive, as well as working through one’s grief.

As fashions evolved, mourning attire reflected these fashion changes. At the same time, widow’s mourning attire in Europe and America was originally “rooted in monastic dress of the Middle Ages: The “habits of nuns remained emblematic of the modesty and chastity that widow’s mourning should signal as a renunciation of worldly allure”. Queen Victoria donned widow’s black clothing when her husband died in 1861 and continued to wear it until her death in January, 1901. When riding a special train to down to London for her funeral, one woman was quoted as saying, “We were all in deep mourning and the ladies wore crepe veils like widows”. This reminded me of seeing Jacqueline Kennedy wearing a black veil for the funeral of her husband, John F. Kennedy. This attire was not something I usually saw in the 1960’s. It seems it was a reflection of the formality of the ceremony of that sad day and the position of JFK as president of the United States.

I think we are still inclined to wear black for funerals and memorials much of the time, although wearing black no longer indicates mourning. Wearing black shifted into a fashion statement early in the 20th Century, making it more confusing to identify those in mourning. For my husband’s memorial, I didn’t want to wear all black. I wore a long black silk skirt with a green cashmere top. A friend of mine told me she wore black for two years after her husband died. This was clearly a huge part of her grieving process. Without the signals that clothing used to give when someone was in mourning, it’s not so easy to know or remember when one might be grieving.  Perhaps, it would be helpful to bring back some practices of mourning or to re-create options that echo this history of mourning attire – and allow each person to choose what works best for them.



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