By Fallon Ward
History is not without bias or revisions. Despite the expectation that history and its institutions dedicated to preserving it should be unwavering, persistent truths that can be painful to comprehend or shameful to some countries and its people, the past can be interpreted, reinterpreted, regurgitated then mislead. Artifacts, text, transcripts, photos, art and art objects can be manipulated in presentation to make viewers to hate, sympathize, identify, appreciate, or admire the subject and the content depending on display. Fashion and clothing objects, probably the most glamorous remnants of the past, tend to be used in museum and historical sites to show the use of textiles or techniques, characterize fictional or real people, or show themes in history. One of the institutions that specializes in this is the Metropolitan Museum of Art with their yearly Met Gala exhibits and with the reopening the basement gallery as the Anna Wintour Costume Center in 2014 and one of the first shows exhibited was Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire (displayed Oct 2014 to Feb 2015). The exhibit is an example of manipulating historical items and its context to make the viewers see the subjects differently than they should have.
Admittedly I did not see this exhibit, but I was very interested in the title and the exhibit summary that I saw on the Met’s website. Met said that Death Becomes Her was an exploration of “aesthetic development and cultural implications of mourning fashions of the 19th and early 20th centuries”. As seen in the photos from the exhibit, 30 or so funeral and mourning ensembles were placed on white mannequins. The dresses came from 1830’s to the 1915 and were all contained in a black palette so the silhouettes that range from voluminous to pipelined and extraordinary details of textures were mostly featured. The Met wanted to show how women visually showed grief and mourning. However, I believe the selection of ensembles and the lack of historical attention is inappropriate and a clear example of revisionist history, particularly when it comes to the subject of the Civil War.
The ensembles that were on display were from the era of the Civil War, Victorian era, Edwardian periods, some were American while others were European. Some famous figures were also on display like Queen Victoria’s mourning dress for her husband Albert’s funeral as well as Marlene Dietrich’s dress for Edith Piaf’s funeral. But those non-famous people, the names of the owners to the clothes shown were not shown. Also, not shown, for the garments from Civil War America, which side of the war the dresses were associated with was also not given in the exhibit or from the Met’s website or other online reviews. It had failed to differentiate the visuals between the Union and the Confederacy women’s funerary and mourning wear if there were any and it pasted the two sides together in a sense which should never be allowed. According to some museum reviews, like Carolyn L.E. Benesh, the funeral dresses acted as some form of “self-reflection and identification” for the audience members since the theme of death is universal.
But I can’t help but think that something is wrong with this display. To equate the deaths of the people of who these sometimes-anonymous women are mourning seems wrong especially when the Met put a famous actress and a former Queen next to women who lost their brothers, sons, fathers in a brutal war to then somehow connect it to 21st century female audience member. Death and grief is a universal understanding but taking out all the important context is doing these women a disservice, especially since some of these women are not unknown. In Drew Faust’s The Republic of Suffering, she gives historical accounts from Civil War era women who expressed their grief in writings, like Abbie Brooks who said that the sufferings of losing a loved one had “purified and petrified me. I care very little for anybody or anything, am neither sorry nor glad, but passive” (160) and Kate Foster whose brother died in the war said that her heart had become “flint” and she was “almost afraid to love too dearly anyone now” (160). Hearing accounts of women who described learning about the death of someone they loved in the Civil War as something akin to your heart being ripped out or losing all will to live is heartbreaking and, to me, makes the dresses the Met showed far more valuable. To gloss over these women and their stories is a horrible presentation of history, particularly women’s history in war time. As Faust said, mourning was a work largely allocated with women and they used their black dresses as a way to find solace in outward visuals (164). They were not flippant expressions of fashion. The dresses tell stories as much as Union or Confederate uniforms or weapons, battle plans, army correspondence letters, medical instruments, etc do.
The Met revised the history of the dresses and their owners to fit some narrative that celebrated design of clothes in a very specific time period but did nothing to inform viewers about what the women lost and what had occurred to cause them to wear such outfits. While they are visually appealing and one can appreciate the details of the garments, the Met as a historical institution that seeks to educate must do better when dealing with war history and with women’s lives in war.
Benesh, Carolyn L. E. Death Becomes Her. A Century of Mourning Attire. Jan 2015.
Faust, Drew. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2008.
Online, Met. Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire. 2014.
—. Metropolitan Museum to Designate Renovated Costume Institute the Anna Wintour Costume Center. 14 Jan 2014.