Mourning Costumes

11.01.2010, 10:37 AM

Well, we survived another Halloween and all three of my children were properly and appropriately decked out in their princess, pirate, or Star Wars themed outfits. Finding the “right” costume has proven to be quite the journey of self-discovery and failure I had never imagined it would be.  Who knew that I could find every “wrong” Han Solo vest that exists?  Who knew that my desperate move to butcher a black tank top into a pseudo vest would prove to be “perfect?”  The question of my 9 year old son will always be burned in my memory, “How did Harrison Ford manage to find the perfect Han Solo costume?” “Well,” I replied, “he had a full time costume crew constructing his perfect outfits!”  “Must be nice,” he wistfully mused. “Yes,” I thought, and on behalf of beleaguered moms everywhere may I echo that sentiment, “Must…be…nice.”

Although I spent most of my weekend focused on modern day costumes, I started thinking about the role of costumes on Friday, when my husband and I took family guests to visit Magnolia Mound.  Built around 1791, Magnolia Mound is the oldest wooden structure in Baton Rouge and models what plantation life on the Mississippi River might have looked like.

A room on the back of the Overseer’s House contains a coffin from that time as well as mourning costumes and customs exhibits. I was most intrigued by this quote:

“Mourning, during the 18th and 19th centuries, was governed by a strict set of cultural rules. Clothing, in particular women’s clothing, was strictly dictated by cultural customs of the day.  Women had the misfortune of having to abide by clothing rules so strict that they dictated the specific dates at which one could switch from all black clothing to white and black prints and shiny black clothing. For the first year after the death of a spouse, a woman wore matte-black dresses and often covered their faces with veils.  After a year the woman could wear the aforementioned shiny black fabrics or white and black prints.  In the last stage of mourning, women could begin to wear lavenders and grays to signify that they were close to exiting the mourning period.  Where women’s clothing was tightly regulated by mourning customs, men’s clothing was less so.  Men wore black hats and black arm bands as their public display of mourning.  Even children and children’s toys were not free from the cultural norms expected of those in mourning.  Just as adult women, little girls were dressed in black, carried black fans, and even dressed their dolls in black garments.  Clothing prescriptions went on for up to two years and in some cases women wore mourning garb their entire lives as a sign of absolute devotion to the deceased. Absurd by today’s standards, people of the day embraced these mourning customs to show that they mourned well.”

The last sentence, which I put in italics, stuck with me.  I was first intrigued by the use of the word “absurd” especially when the people of that time would probably think our total lack of public acknowledgement of a death absurd. I wonder what they would think about how their mourning costumes are perceived in today’s culture.  How people who wear all black are considered to be “weird,” Goths, or witches in our culture. If a man were seen wearing a black arm band today, we’d call Homeland Security presuming that he is a member of a radical sect who is planning on bombing something. I can hear them calling from history, saying, “Well, I guess they don’t have to wear mourning colors or costumes since they have adapted and created a new public way to acknowledge loss and suffering.”  Oh wait, we haven’t done that. We have no exterior way to show grief let alone show that we have mourned well. 

As I saw with my children, costumes are important.  Regardless of what I think, they have a strong sense of what looks “right;” what fits their imagination.  Costumes allow them to tap into parts of themselves that otherwise stay under the wraps of school uniforms and pop culture T shirts. Costumes can provide a gate to liminal space where we are free to imagine, free try on new identities, and, with mourning costumes, free to express pain without using words. I propose we mourn the loss of mourning clothes.

2 Responses to “Mourning Costumes”

  1. Alana S. says:

    Great point.
    Also, clothing communicates to others how they should approach/treat us. The Pope’s garments signify something special. Uniforms signify something special. Wedding bands and Bindhi’s signify something special.

    It tells others something about us without having to come out and say it.

  2. This is a fascinating post.

    It also amazes me the editorial commentary some curators see fit to indulge in.

    “Absurd by today’s standards,” indeed. How right you are to say how absurd we would seem to them. We ceaselessly watch death on screens for entertainment and yet don’t talk about it in real life. Absurd.