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​Basic black: The fashion of mourning attire

Martha Teichner takes us on a tour of a new exhibit at New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art, which explores what was expected of Victorian-Era widows
What widows wore: Victorian fashions for mourning 05:24

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.

In major cities, there were whole department stores -- warehouses -- devoted to fashionable mourning wear, like today's wedding salons. But mourning was about more than clothes.

Mourners were expected to act as well as look the part. Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With the Wind," recently widowed, courted scandal by dancing at a ball:

Scarlett: "I just can't bear gong around in black! It's bad enough not being able to go to any parties -- but looking this way, too?"

Mary Davis, dean of graduate studies at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, said the rules were changed by World War I: "There were so many men who were lost in that conflict that the idea of massive mourning was just too much to contemplate.

"One nice gauge of this is to look at Emily Post's writings in the 1920s. There aren't the imperatives to hide your face. It's a much lightened-up version of mourning."

And by the mid-1920s, fashion designers -- notably Coco Chanel -- had re-purposed widows' weeds as the "little black dress," so fabulously un-funereal on Audrey Hepburn in "Breakfast at Tiffany's."

And yet, think of Jackie Kennedy at JFK's funeral. The black suit, the crape veil.

And, Davis said, when you look ahead to Princess Diana's funeral in 1997, "Prince Charles showed up to that event wearing a navy blue suit rather than black because, as he said, it was her favorite suit. It's still common to wear black to the funeral, but that's not necessary. What's more important is to be neat and pressed and dignified, and to respect the memory of the person who is lost."

White is the traditional color of mourning in China, India and Japan.

But with Halloween still in mind, we thought we'd return to the Metropolitan Museum, descend into the gloom -- and celebrate basic black.

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