Posted by: ferge22j | December 15, 2014

Review of Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire

A few days before Halloween this year, I joined a group I co-founded, Lolitas and the Arts, for a pleasant outing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and tea afterwards. The group consists of two dozen or so odd young women who are interested in both the arts – theatre, music, museums – and the clothing of a set of six Japanese designers who dominate the fashion subculture known as “lolita.” We meet at the Met at least every other month, but this time was especially exciting because of the new exhibit “Death Becomes Her” at the museum’s Anna Wintour Costume Center, a display of nineteenth-century mourning attire. Rarely do we find an event that so closely fits our aesthetic.

Lolita fashion wears its Victorian influence on its sleeve, especially the more mature, muted variation called “classic” that most of our members (including myself) prefer. Classic lolita designers such as Mary Magdalene and Victorian Maiden attempt to apply the nineteenth-century silhouette and aesthetic, especially its preoccupation with detail and quality, to modern fashion. The exhibit’s focus on mourning made it even more relevant to our interests because lolita was dominated for decades by the “gothic lolita” aesthetic espoused by the designer Moi-meme Moitie, which adhered much more closely to the Victorian Gothic than to Western goth. Furthermore, all our members are fervent Victorianists (including some real academics), and we were just generally very excited for the visit.

Before meeting, we agreed to incorporate elements of gothic lolita and of Victorian mourning into the outfits we would wear to the museum. I don’t own any black lolita dresses because I don’t think the color flatters me, so I decided to opt for half-mourning in violet-colored Angelica by Mary Magdalene with black lace accessories: shawl, parasol, fan, and a little veil attached to a black velvet hat. Most of the other members wore more extensive black but likewise displayed their knowledge of the traditions of half-mourning by only accessorizing with white and lavender. Veils happen to be in style among the lolita designers this year, so many made use of those in varying materials and sizes. We all looked as meticulous and conspicuous as usual.

We met in the museum atrium on a busy Saturday afternoon and quickly attracted many curious stares – to wear lolita fashion in Manhattan, one must not be afraid of standing out. However, as soon as we descended the stairs into the Anna Wintour Costume Center, we began to fit in more than we almost ever do in the city. The darkened room contained thirty or so pure-white mannequins in mourning wear spanning in era from the Regency to the Edwardian. The display platforms were lit from multiple angles so as to cast hazy, shifting shadows on the white floor and the white curtains draped from the walls. There were no glass walls to separate the life-size mannequins from the audience, only platforms to raise them above us, which heightened their uncanny ghostliness. It felt as though we had entered a space outside of time – one of the “liminal spaces” we mention so often in English literary scholarship – where the dead and the living, the present and a dozen different pasts exist at once for our viewing pleasure. The two dozen of us lolitas milling around the similarly-dressed mannequins surely heightened that effect for the other visitors.

The thirty-odd outfits were presented chronologically from 1815 to 1915. There were two men’s outfits and one for a little girl, but the vast majority belonged to wealthy women. The femininity of the exhibit reflected the statement on the informational placards that mourning was a distinctly feminine role in the nineteenth century. While I believe this is a correct statement, I would have preferred to see a broader picture of what mourning could look like in the nineteenth century. The placards describe the ways the traditions of mourning changed according to the class, sex, and age of the wearer, but the exhibited items themselves insufficiently illustrated this information. It is understandable that less working-class clothing than upper-class clothing remains in good enough preservation for exhibition, especially considering the tendency of cheap black dye to fade to brown or blue, but a few good reproductions would have been useful. I would have been particularly interested to see more children’s mourning. The placards mention that mourning clothes for children were often white with black trim rather than the more somber allover black, but the one child’s outfit on display is as pure black as the rest.

Despite the narrowness of the exhibit, we all gushed over the beauty of the clothing on display at least as much as we complimented each other’s outfits over afternoon tea at the beautiful Lillie’s Victorian Establishment (which happens to be named after Lillie Langtry, the character with which I began this series of blog posts). As usual, we bemoaned (with varying amounts of irony) being born into such an unaesthetic era and wished we could visit the real Victorian era for at least a little while. However, as soon as we got out of our taxis (subway crowds are hell on tulle petticoats) and into our respective homes, most of us changed right back into the shapeless styleless garments of the twenty-first century to which we rightfully belong. We would never have to experience the societal pressure that would force women to dress in stiff black crepe for decades; we never had to force our bodies into corsets and crinolines unless we really wanted to. And as much as all of us enjoy visiting the world of Victoriana for an afternoon, I doubt there are many among us who truly wish to live there.


Greetings from Lillie’s Victorian Establishment


  1. Wow, this is so interesting Jennifer! I’m curious what other exhibits you’ve visited in the past? I assume they can’t all be fashion related, but do you stick to the Victorian theme? Digression aside, I was curious about the exhibit, so I checked out the description on the MET website. I’m an Art History major, so I’m always intrigued not only by the pieces included in an exhibit, but also how the exhibit is composed as a whole. The website said that they intentionally contrasted the dark mourning clothes with stark white walls. I find this quite interesting, because typically fashion designers today will create some sort of spectacle or backdrop for their runway shows. They’re concerned with making a statement and eliciting a strong reaction from viewers–the “wow” factor is of the utmost importance. I like that the MET decided to strip down and simplify the space because, as you said, aesthetic creates the statement for Victorian fashion. The pieces have a level of detailed simplicity that is meant to speak for itself and by itself. When you see a runway show that has thumping music and lights and flashing colors, you almost forget that the clothes are the real display. Take especially the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show that just aired on TV last week. Big name artists like Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande are commissioned to perform, and props and dancers appear throughout the stage, which seem to act more as roadblocks than interactive pieces. I’m wondering how you felt being in the exhibit space. The production design of the VSFS is quite amazing and intense; but, do we lose out on appreciating the clothes because they are forced to compete with the spectacle? When you were at the “Death Becomes Her” exhibit, did you appreciate the simplicity of the space, or did it feel unfinished? Do you wish there had been more design to the composition, or did you appreciate that the clothes were the one and only stars?

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