After Oscar de la Renta’s death last week, his legion fans among New York society paid tribute to the designer by donning his brightly hued gowns for parties and charity galas. It was a freeform response that felt both spontaneous and appropriate.
Rewind a century or two, and the rules would have been very different, as the fall exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute illustrates in delicate detail with yard after yard of black crêpe, corded silk, tulle, and taffeta. “Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire” presents 30 dresses from the institute’s collection, including gowns worn by Queen Victoria, that date from 1815 to 1915, a period during which mourning required adherence to an elaborate system of etiquette and fashion.
“The veiled widow could elicit sympathy as well as predatory male advances,” says Harold Koda, Costume Institute curator. “As a woman of sexual experience without marital constraints, she was often imagined as a potential threat to the social order.”
That tension between grief and sex is evident in dresses like an off-the-shoulder evening gown from 1861, its plunging neckline and full skirt rendered in a combination of black moiré silk, black jet beads, and black lace. It’s easy to imagine a mourning Scarlett O’Hara in such a dress, frowning into the mirror as she longs to add a jolt of color, perhaps a pinned flower, to her sombre party attire.
To Koda, that frustration would be short-sighted. “Mourning, if you take a superficial view, is incredibly chic,” Koda told the New York Times. Indeed, there is a mysterious glamour to the dresses in the show, the faces of their wearers inscrutable behind a bonnet, veil or hat. And just as women today take their fashion cues from Kate Middleton, 19th-century women looked to their royal contemporaries for guidance on mourning’s evolving balance between propriety and style. Two of the most striking looks in the show, for example, were commissioned by Queen Alexandra, who pushed the boundaries of “mauve” in 1902 by wearing gowns embellished in purple sequins from head to toe.
Perhaps it’s not such a leap from there to last week’s parade of “Oscars” as it might at first appear. Then as now, the best way to call attention to the deceased is to carry off a glamorous look on his behalf.
“Death Becomes Her” will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through February 1.