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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Dr. Alice Dailey's Renaissance Revenge Tragedy Class Visits New York City: Dr. Dailey on Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire

Dr. Alice Dailey and several students from her fall course on Renaissance Revenge Tragedy recently took in an exhibit at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  Dr. Dailey's narrative follows.

"Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire” features mourning fashions from Europe and America dating from 1815 to 1915.  The exhibit includes full ensembles, including dresses worn by Queen Victoria and Queen Alexandra, as well as exquisite accessories such as hats, parasols, mourning jewelry, and hair pins.  It highlights the development of elaborate conventions for mourning attire across the 19th and early 20th centuries—conventions disseminated through mediums like the fashion magazine to a middle class eager to emulate high-class bereavement etiquette and style.  Having just studied an early 17th-century play about a widow, John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, our group was attuned to the rigid decorum that such increasingly elaborate mourning standards imposed, especially on women.  We were also struck by the echoes of another play we had recently studied: Hamlet.  Hamlet complains of the inadequacy of outward mourning conventions—the “inky cloak,” the “customary suits of solemn black,” the “forms, moods, shapes of grief”—to express his inward sorrow (1.2.81-84).  As “Death Becomes Her” notes, the potential substitution of decorous mourning clothes in place of genuine grief became a theme among critics of an expanding and lucrative industry devoted to outfitting female mourners.  The exhibit is at once beautiful and eerie, and our group highly recommends it to anyone visiting New York.  It’s open until February 1, 2015.

From the "Death Becomes Her" exhibit