Friday, January 9, 2015

Death, Sex, Glamour and Allure Become The New Black

Well, the proof is in the pudding; the devil is in the details. and truth be told, the combination of sex, fashion, glamour and mourning have definitely become Electra. Now, all of this is really true and really 100% honest, due largely to the examples, stories, notes, and last but not least, all of the fantastical, albeit slightly monstrous, if you will, images, which are so deftly portrayed throughout The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute’s first Fall Exhibition in seven years - aptly titled, "Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire” - on view in The Anna Wintour Costume Center through February 1, 2015.

As more than just a mere few Victorians saw death, mourning and the clothing, accessories, et al., which went along with paying homage to the dearly departed of the period, women (and probably a few men, too) in mourning were seen as contradictory figures— objects of sympathy and pity, to be sure; but also, and more often, no doubt, many of these mourners were often-times viewed as highly mysterious, sexually charged, and explicitly appealing.

Obviously, with all of this going on, most Victorian women were well aware of the contradiction; to wit: "There is a charm and fascination in the manner and conversation of a widow which is known and appreciated by the other sex," wrote Martha Louise Rayne in her 1881 book Gems of Deportment and Hints on Etiquette.

Yet another example of this type of contradictory attitude can be notated in the following story: After being told the mourning clothes she wore for her brother looked becoming on her, a Tennessee teenager named Nannie Haskins, wrote in her diary in 1863: "Becomes the fiddlestick. What do I care whether it becomes me or not? I don't wear black because it becomes me . . . I wear mourning because it corresponds with my feelings."

The above quotes are included within the Exhibition, which basically favors quite a strong (often-times startling and off kilter) position , in terms of defining and showcasing the key nuances of Victorian and Edwardian Mourning Attire, not to mention how the extremely chaste. prim and proper women of this time were viewed and regarded as dark and forbidden sexual objets d’art, in both their mode of dress, as well as their mannerisms; as related to the mourning of loved ones who had passed on.

The Exhibition features some 30 ensembles, many of which are reportedly being seen for the very first time, “reveals the impact of high-fashion standards on the sartorial dictates of bereavement rituals as they evolved over a century.”

Further, the “Death Becomes Her …..” title plays on this inherent contradiction: Most of us see death as an unwelcome aspect of life, and yet there is something undeniably sensual, sexual, dark, mysterious, chic, glamorous, et al., about every aspect of mourning garb, albeit even for those Victorian and Edwardian women who may never even have had any thoughts of arousing these attitudes and feelings, but still may have been thrilled, titillated and, or aroused; perhaps even that much more womanly, by being seen and thought of by others in these ways, which were surely out of the norm for the period.

According to Harold Koda, (Curator in Charge of The Costume Institute, who is curating the current Exhibition with Jessica Regan, Assistant Curator): “The predominantly black palette of mourning dramatizes 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.”

Frankly, for this editor, this type of allure is not all that perverse, especially considering the fact that most people (not just the New York fashion show crowd) still believe that black is everything; always chic, super stylish; sensual; goes with everything, everywhere.

Modern clothing and the love of black notwithstanding, Victoriana, in general, is always mysterious and a bit scary. Long veils invite a look underneath (what becomes the woman most is an understatement here). The period’s version of modern-day bling is fetchingly understated, when formed of nearly weird, black-only jewels. And, what more can be said about the virtues of Victorian clothing, which while might appear excessively ornate to the modern eye, seems totally smooth and ultra-elegant, when rendered in the monochromatic palette of blackness. So, with all of this being said, and though far from today’s design schematic; digitally enhanced, airbrushed, et al., ideals of modern style and beauty, Victorian mourning wear has much to say and much to show, in terms of an extremely potent and a bit frightening, blend of death, sex, glamour, lust, and restrained, if not out and out, femininity.

What makes this stand-alone, thematic and chronologically organized Exhibition appear most unique and interesting is that all of the thirty ensembles—most adorned with gloves, hats, and jewelry – feature an array of eclectic mourning dress from 1815-1915, primarily from The Costume Institute’s Collection. “The calendar of bereavement evolution and cultural implications are illuminated through a range of women’s clothing and accessories, showing the progression of appropriate fabrics from mourning crape to corded silks, and the latter introduction of color with shades of gray and mauve.”

In the first stark-white display area, a grouping of well-coiffed, white-haired, period mannequins, show the wardrobe. A small, second room, displays a luxurious selection of accessories (including a gorgeous black silk parasol), as well as pages from British and French fashion journals and satirical drawings from the famed illustrator of the period, Charles Dana Gibson. An apt part of the Exhibition centers on rather ghoulish, post-mortem photograph of a child, suitably covered by a black velvet drape, offering protection from bright lights. During Victorian times, photographing the dead was not unusual; especially in the case of children, where the after-death photograph was often the only image the family would ever have of the deceased. Perhaps the Victorian standards of dress and comportment as related to mourning definitely have fueled the love affair which virtually every modern-day designer around the world (not to mention how women and more than a few men) feel about black in general (not only related to paying respect to the dead). The act of mourning, grief, et al., specifically the wearing of black clothing, jewelry, accessories, et al., was and continues to remain today, something to be seen as paying respect to those who have left the world as we know to be, of course, but more importantly, the terminology of sexuality, sensuality, glamour, allure, mystery, depths of darkness, etc., continues to play on and on; transposing from those long-ago, Victorian and Edwardian times – “Elaborate standards of mourning set by royalty spread across class lines via fashion magazines,” according to Regan. Clearly, and for the many viewers of the current Costume Institute’s Exhibition, many of these ideas, attitudes, auras and feelings, continue to have a deep and long-lasting impact today.

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