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Death becomes her: a century of mourning attire at the Met

Death Becomes Her is the Met’s new exhibition on memento mori artefacts, bereavement jewels resuscitated from the 19th century to remember the dearly departed.

28 October 2014

By Rachel Garrahan in New York

Elaborate jet necklaces and hair brooches are among the fascinating, if somewhat macabre, items at Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire, the latest exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute in New York.

In the Victorian era, mortality rates were much higher than they are today and demanded a formal response to bereavement both in terms of etiquette and dress. Women were required to follow strict guidelines when it came to what they wore, from their black gowns to their jewelry, which was full of classical and Christian symbols of bereavement.

Although we might think of them as being a bit creepy, jewels incorporating the hair of a loved one - chosen because of its natural durability - were a popular way of remembering the dearly departed in the 19th century.

One of the most beautiful pieces on display is a Tiffany brooch from 1868. Unlike anything you can imagine the house producing today, the brooch features the braided hair of deceased Cornelia Ray Hamilton in an elegant frame of gold and pearls; the latter representing the tears of her loved ones. Like much of the jewelry on display, the brooch is inscribed on the back with her name and dates of her birth and death.

Miniature portraits of the deceased offered intimate, immediate tokens of remembrance and affection, and the exhibit includes one particularly haunting painting of a young girl among clouds, a motif that suggests her soul's ascension to heaven.

The prestigious Rothschild collection has lent some outstanding examples, including a heart-shaped diamond brooch with the words "In Memoriam" spelt out in a display of virtuoso craftsmanship. The Rothschild collection also contributed a gold and black enamel brooch featuring a coiled snake that signifies eternity.

With its chunky black links, a spectacular English jet necklace on display could be mistaken for a contemporary Marni creation. Jet was much loved by the Victorians who considered it one of the few materials suitable for the period of full mourning, but there's no denying this bold piece's sheer style.

For an intimate experience of Victorian society and its very particular jewelry conventions, visit Death Becomes Her before it closes on 1 February 2015.

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