Royal Mourning Gowns at the Costume Institute

Last weekend we found ourselves in New York City soaking up the fall foliage and vibrant energy around the annual marathon.

A view (via he Royal Post)

On Saturday we stopped by the Metropolitan Museum for a good look around and – surprise, surprise – it was packed. There was a  particular crush getting into the Costume Institute’s current exhibit, Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire.  Quite appropriate for Halloween weekend, right? Plus, knowing that some royal gowns were there we just had to peak in.

via The Metropolitan Museum

Welcome! (Courtsey The Metropolitan Museum)

Visitors are guided around the exhibit in chronological order from the first costume that dates to 1815 to the last from 1915, and you can really see the progression of how the tradition of mourning dress evolved over the years. The backgrounds and mannequins themselves are all a crisp white, so even more attention is brought to the costumes.

This could be Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester (via Metropolitan Museum)

This could be Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester (via Metropolitan Museum)

Quotes about the tradition of mourning dress are reflected up on the walls giving more insights into the culture surrounding mourning. One that stood out for me was this quip:

“When we see ladies persist in wearing sable, we are reminded of the reply a young widow made to her mother: ‘Don’t you see,’ said she, ‘it saves me the expense of advertising for a husband.'”

While widowers could get away with remarrying a month or two of grieving, for women tradition dictated two and a half years plus a day of mourning in various shades of black, grey, and purple. The first year was for “full mourning” (nothing but dull fabrics and often a veil worn over the face), followed by a year of  “half-mourning” (some taffeta and trays and purples might be all right) and another six months of “ordinary mourning” (you might get away with some white). So as you would expect there was a big industry for mourning clothing and accessories.

Once you hit the second half of the room, some Royal dresses await. The first belonged to the Queen of Mourning herself, Victoria. After all, this is a woman who wore a version of mourning dress 40 years from the death of her husband Prince Albert in 1961  until her own death in 1901.

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Seeing her gown with that ghostly veil is another reminder of just how small in stature she was. They had to put her up on this pedestal so she wasn’t completely dwarfed by the others.

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A closer look at some of the ribbon detailing

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Things start to lighten up considerably when we see Queen Alexandra’s sparkly mourning gowns worn after her mother-in-law Queen Victoria’s death.

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These two gowns are so ornate – unfortunately these pictures from my phone just don’t quite do them justice.  The beadwork is incredible, but they still follow the rules of mourning in that the colours are subdued.


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Remember, Queen Alexandra didn’t shy away from diamonds- this is a woman who had them encrusted on the handle of her coronation fan– so there would have been extra sparkle.

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That train! This can’t have a been a lightweight dress to wear around.
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The exhibit also includes a look at some Victorian mourning accessories and discusses how the tradition started to end after the first World War. In a nutshell, the thought of the whole population is mourning was too overwhelming. The exhibit runs from October 21 – February 1, 2015 if you have  a chance to check it out for yourself!

Here are a few other royal-themed museum visits we’ve discussed, if you’d like to see:

(Unless otherwise specified, images belong to The Royal Post)



Categories: British Royal Family

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2 replies

  1. It is sad to see that Queen Victoria was so overwhelmed by grief, but the fashions evolved into a great-looking fashion statement!


  1. A Look at 17 Bruton Street | The Royal Post

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