I have returned from my travels to NY NY. I will spend the next few days talking about my adventures at museums, hot chocolate, and a star studded play.
When planning for this trip, I was particularly keen to see “Death Becomes Her”, an exhibition on Victorian female mourning outfits, at the Metropolitan Museum. Of late, I’ve become very fascinating with the history of fashion. I’ve always been in favor of the study of culture in history; this is a new facet to me. Also, I have this fascination with death rituals, like the Day of the Dead and cemeteries, so I was curious about this show. I rather enjoyed it. It’s not a huge exhibition; it’s located in basement galleries set aside for fashion. It was a giant room with mannequins sporting a variety of mourning dresses. On the walls, there were projected quotations about mourning related fashions. The quotations came from a variety of texts: etiquette guides, novels, even doctor’s warnings. (Veils could be dangerous to the eyes, apparently). The outfits and the quotations were quite a nice combination.
I learned that there were at least three stages of mourning. The first stage was the most severe; the outfits were just black with simple fabrics. Second stage was a little less severe. Women could start wearing different kinds of fabrics, though in black. Maybe a little white trim. The third stage or half mourning (I think) was when women could wear some muted fabrics, like grey or even purple. I’ve never thought of purple as related to mourning at all. Apparently, stores would be dedicated to mourning fashion. Department stores would have mourning departments. But then again, women were expected to be in mourning for two years or so (it varied on woman’s relationship with the family member who died). It’d be hard to imagine a time when a woman wasn’t in mourning in the Victorian era. And there was etiquette for wedding dresses during time of mourning. Of course, there were. Also, unsurprisingly, class distinctions were perpetuated through the ritual. The best (and most expensive) mourning outfits had good black that didn’t fade into other colors.
There was also a side room that had some accessories and fashion plates. It was amazing to see how fashion magazines advised various outfits conforming to mourning etiquette. There were mourning morning outfits, mourning walking outfits, mourning evening dress… I also finally saw hair jewelry. I’d heard about this Victorian practice of taking the hair of the deceased and making it into art or jewelry. There was even a Tiffany pendant with a little brown braid inside of it! And there were beautiful mourning hats. One had an entire bird on it!
I also wanted to check out an exhibition on kimonos. It was moderately interesting. Part of the issue is that we entered it at the end and proceeded through it backwards. It was interesting to learn about how Western fabrics were incorporated in. It’s not a history I normally think about. Also, there were some amazing propaganda kimonos, covered in machines of war. But the most striking thing was a beautiful purple kimono. It was the same color as a mourning dress in the “Death Becomes Her” exhibition. It was amazing how the same color can have very different meanings between cultures. So neat!
What was neat about the two exhibitions was that it made me explore more of the Met. Usually, I go to see the Egyptian galleries or the Greek/Roman ones. Or I’ll wander into the Renaissance areas. This time, I spent time in the Ancient Americas, which had some amazing silver drinking vessels. Apparently, silver doesn’t survive well buried so it’s relatively rare to find. With respect to pottery, I will say that the Field Museum has better collection of pottery; it has so many more pots from the Moche and Nazca civilizations than the Met. But there were various wonderful golden artifacts from all over the Americas.
We also wandered through the African galleries; I didn’t know they had works from Benin! Beautiful objects. In the Oceanic/Arctic peoples’ room, there was an incredible Bear mask that I desperately want now. I also wandered around the European decorative arts rooms; they tend to be places that I walk past in search of Egyptian or Greek art. So it was nice to see these beautiful room recreations that reminded me of European palaces. It was nice to have a moment to appreciate it. I also spent some time looking at Meissen ceramics, which was cool. There’s this curious one where a bearded man holds up an artichoke as if it were an umbrella.
And then there is the Temple of Dendur. I don’t care how many times I got to the Met. This ancient Egyptian temple still takes my breath away. The architects planned it so well. There is the temple raised on a platform that you can wander around. There is a wonderful pond in front of it and a giant wall of windows leading out to Central Park. And apparently, the Met is having concerts there. One of my favorite bands had a concert there earlier this Fall. I’m still jealous at the thought!
The Met is truly a magnificent museum. Can’t wait to go back!