If you are a truly compulsive shopper, there are lies you tell yourself about your addiction. It’s not just mindless buying, it’s curating a collection! You’re not just a consumer, you’re a connoisseur! I have spent decades consoling myself with these fibs, and I guess if you live long enough, anything really can happen—because I am friends with Harold Koda, the curator-in-charge at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, and he knows all about my dark habits, two of my precious darlings have been deemed museum–worthy.
Now, instead of sleeping in my jewelry box, my 1860 ring with the miniature oil portrait of a handsome young man, and my 1810 diamond brooch commemorating not one but two dead brothers, and even offering some strands of their hair, are in a showcase at the Met’s “Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire,” with a card that reads “Courtesy of Lynn Yaeger,” right next to a locket and a pin lent by the Rothschild Family Trust. (I may be prejudiced, but my pieces are cuter.)
Photo: Neil Rasmus/BFAnyc.com
Photo: Neil Rasmus/BFAnyc.com
It is thrilling to watch people—total strangers—peer with rapt attention at my jewelry, especially since I’ve worn these items a thousand times and can assure you they have rarely elicited the merest curiosity, let along compliments. At the opening night reception, I lurk by the jewelry case as long as possible, gloating, which is perhaps not the most appropriate response to an exhibit where you are met upon entering by a group of black-clad mannequins, including a poignant little girl, circa 1830, stuck in these sad raiments.
Not even children were exempt from the strict rules of the nineteenth century, which dictated what exactly you had to wear, and for how long, based on how close you were to the deceased. After a while you could move to mauve or gray, donning something that was called half-mourning, but some people never availed themselves of this option. Queen Victoria, who fled to black when Prince Albert died in 1861, never lightened her palette, even though she lived another 40 years. One of her somber garments is on display here, just a few feet from a spectacular sequined purple number that her successor, Queen Alexandra, deemed appropriate for half-mourning, only a year after Victoria’s passing, in 1902. (With the new century apparently came some radical new notions—sure, it’s mauve, but you could have worn it to Studio 54.)
The exhibit includes parasols, paintings, carte de visites, even catalogue advertisements—for the Victorians, the shadow of death was ever-present, with a soaring infant mortality rate and life expectancy maxing out below 50. But lucky us, not only have we been liberated from the arduous, invasive complex codes of sartorial conduct, but we have penicillin, and vaccines, and insulin, and birth control pills! Now when we lose someone dear, we don’t advertise our grief as our forbears did, but go about our everyday lives, wearing what we will, carrying our sorrow deep inside.
“Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire” opens at the Metropolitan Museum of Art today and is on view through February 1, 2015; metmuseum.org
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