You Should Be Reading: Fashion and Mourning



In honour of the Costume Institute’s newest exhibition, Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire, Worn Through would like to recommend the following readings on fashion and mourning. Our selection includes a classic book on the subject to be revisited, followed by two more recent articles – exploring the link between 19th century mourning dress and 20th century fashion, and the significance of clothing in memory and mourning through English wills spanning three centuries. Have you seen the MET’s new exhibition or have any favourite mourning-related readings of your own? Let us know in the comments section below.

1. Taylor, Lou. (2009). Mourning Dress: A Costume and Social History. London: Routledge.

First published in 1983, Lou Taylor’s Mourning Dress is a comprehensive survey of women’s fashionable mourning dress from the middle ages to the decline of mourning traditions after the First World War. Taylor begins with an introduction to European funeral practices and the social status of widows, later tracing the development of fashionable dress for mourning across social classes and from different countries. Supplementary chapters on mourning jewellery, the mourning dress and textile industries and the colours of mourning reinforce both the scale and importance of these grieving rituals in Western society over four centuries. Accompanied by over a hundred photographs and two appendices on fabrics and the stages of mourning, the book is a valuable resource to any dress or social historian studying the development and significance of fashion for mourning.

2. Mitchell, Rebecca N. (2013). ‘Death Becomes Her: On the Progressive Potential of Victorian Mourning.’ Victorian Literature and Culture, 41(4), 595-620.

On the occasion of her Golden Jubilee, Queen Victoria was depicted in a woodcut by William Nicholson that was to become extremely popular. So stout that her proportions approach those of a cube, the Queen is dressed from top to toe in her usual black mourning attire, the white of her gloved hands punctuating the otherwise nearly solid black rectangle of her body. Less than thirty years later, another simple image of a woman in black would prove to be equally iconic: the lithe, narrow column of Chanel’s black dress. Comparing the dresses depicted in the two images might lead one to conclude that the only thing they have in common is the color black. And yet, twentieth- and twenty-first-century fashion historians suggest that Victorian mourning is the direct antecedent of the sexier fashions that followed. These are provocative claims given that most scholarly accounts of Victorian mourning attire offer no indication that such progressive possibilities were inherent in widows’ weeds. Instead, those accounts focus almost exclusively on chasteness and piety, qualities required of the sorrowful widow, as the only message communicated by her attire. The disparity in the two accounts raises the question: how could staid, cumbersome black Victorian mourning attire lead to dresses understood to embrace sexuality and mobility? — Paraphrased Article Abstract

3. Lambert, M. (2014). ‘Death and Memory: Clothing Bequests in English Wills, 1650-1830.’ Costume, 48(1), 46-59.

Specific clothing bequests form a distinct and often intimate feature in a range of English wills during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Carefully and symbolically allocated to new owners, garments were thus imbued with commemoration as well as financial worth. This paper suggests that gender differentials in this practice have been exaggerated as individual men could be as committed to the process as their female counterparts. Crucially, men and women without children or partners were most disposed to draw up detailed wills reallocating a range of possessions, especially clothing. In this creation of stewardship for chosen garments, individual personality and familial situation were more decisive than any general social or economic considerations. – Full Article Abstract

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