This post first appeared on Stylenoir, written by myself.
As a fashion and dress history student and a fan of the fashion of the Victorians, I know that the Victorian Widow had many expectations to fill and etiquette to uphold in regard to the proper way in which to mourn their husbands. The most prominent and obvious way was through their mourning attire. However these social expectations and correct etiquette was evidently portrayed within the mourning attire collection with the spectrum of materials and styles on display from varying degrees of class and society. Mainly focusing on British, French and American dress, the black crepe heavy collection also included intricately beaded black silks and tulles for the upper class mourning Victorian.
Perhaps the most associated figure in the fashions of mourning was Queen Victoria, who spent over half her reign entirely in black after the death of her husband, Prince Albert. The exhibition showcased one of Queen Victoria’s black silk mourning dresses among its collection, notably shorter and larger than that of its surrounding outfits.
What the exhibition made clear, was that even in the grieving period of a love and lost loved one, fashion was still paramount in a widows clothing choices. Jessica Regan, assistant curator of “Death Becomes Her” reflected that the “Elaborate standards of mourning set by royalty spread across class lines via fashion magazines” and set in a separate room in the exhibition is a wall of fashion plates over the century illustrating the silhouettes, materials and styles of mourning attire across the hundred year period covered by the exhibition, from 1815 to 1915.
Set to an eerie soundtrack of soft church choir music, along with the dimmed lights, partly for preservation of the over century old garments, but also I’m sure to add to the creation of a funeral atmosphere, mimicking the flickering of church candles, entering the exhibition did truly feel as though you were entering the sobriety of the Victorian era.
Although black was the most prominent colour, which gave the room an incredibly gothic feel, like the setting of an Edgar Allan Poe novel, deep shades of mauve and purple were also present, similar to that seen in the aforementioned AW15 collections.
Of the black colour palette, Harold Koda, Curator in Charge of the Costume Institute says “The predominantly black palette of mourning dramatises the evolution of period silhouettes and the increasing absorption of fashion ideals into this most codified of etiquettes…The veiled widow could elicit sympathy as well as predatory male advances. As a woman of sexual experience without marital constraints, she was often imagined as a potential threat to the social order.”
It is interesting then, that current designers should base their AW15 collections on the mourning attire of the Victorian widows, who’s black attire gave an air of mystery, “with their roguish eyes sparkling under their black veils that are very seducing” – Robert De Valcourt ‘The Illustrated Manners Book’ 1855. Perhaps this was the intent of Browne and Jacobs, to have the streets filled with seductive, black clad, widow-esque women posing as a threat to social order with their sexual liberation and escape from the constraints of men.