​Basic black: The fashion of mourning attire

When it comes to the color of mourning for the dead, Black remains the OLD Black . . . and never more so then at this time of year. Martha Teichner has been to a museum that makes the point:

All right, it was Halloween. But a strange phenomenon overtook New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art lately: People keep showing up as if they've lost their nearest and dearest -- a century and a half ago.

"I'm a fashionista in every era," chirped one young lady.

"There are people who, I think, were just born in the wrong century -- I think I'm one of those people!" said another.

These women dress up in black for fun . . . but imagine wearing nothing but black, head-to-toe, for years.

From "Death Becomes Her." Metropolitan Museum of Art

What the well-dressed mourner wore in that era is the subject of the Met's look at mourning attire between 1815 and 1915.

Jessica Regan, a curator of the Met exhibit, showed Teichner a mourning dress and full veil: "This dress would have been worn during a period of deep mourning" -- the first stage of mourning.

"It's covered completely in mourning crape, which has a very distinctly crinkled, almost pebbled surface, and it's finished with a starch so it's rather stiff."

And dull black. Crape is what a respectable American or European widow was expected to wrap herself in during Victorian times.

"There was an expectation, at least in the first stages of mourning, that one would wear the veil over the face," said Regan.

That was Year One.

In Year Two a little shine was permissible in the fabric.

But wait, there was more: an additional six months of so-called "half-mourning," during which a hint of white or color was OK.

Men, by comparison, had it easy.

"Some etiquette manuals suggested only a period of three months mourning for a widower," said Regan. "The black suit that men habitually worn anyway was fairly appropriate for mourning attire. He could simply add a crape band around his top hat."

"Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire." Metropolitan Museum of Art

Dressing simply in black for mourning, like a nun actually, goes back to the Middle Ages. Queen Victoria's approach to mourning: Overkill, so to speak. She wore black for 40 years after her husband died.

But what the royals did trickled down to the middle class. How? Fashion magazines, which emerged in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. "They really offered much more detailed information for a much broader spectrum of society on the latest fashions, and that included mourning fashions," said Regan.