Mourning, and the Weekly Photo Challenge: Gone, but not Forgotten

This mourning brooch is made of gold, pearls, black enamel, and hair. Yes, that’s right — hair. On New York trips our favorite first stop is the Met Museum. In November, Sam and I checked out “Death Becomes Her: a Century of Mourning Attire” in the Met’s newly remodeled Costume Institute.

Mourning Brooch, 1868, Tiffany & Co

Mourning Brooch, 1868, Tiffany & Co. Hair was often used in jewelry as a memento of a lost loved one.

Most of the clothing on display was for women. In the Victorian era, the century in question, men normally wore black suits, and the addition of a black armband, cravat, or hatband was often enough to qualify them as mourning. Besides that, the proscribed mourning period for men was not as long. The ladies had new black dresses made, or dyed their existing ones (with, by the way, toxic dyes).

Death Becomes Her - stylish mourning attire

Something for the stylish mourner.

 After all that, what a relief to see the gift shop, full of jet black jewelry and… breath mints.

"Mystifying Mints" in Ouija-board boxes.

… Mystifying Mints! a la mystifying oracle I presume? Yes, I’m mystified.

Next stop, the Greek galleries. I didn’t realize the “mourning” pattern of this tour until later, when I looked at my photos. Here’s just one example.

Marble Stele of a Woman, Greek, mid-4th century BCE

Marble stele (grave marker) of a woman, Greek, Attic, mid-4th century BCE

Next day, lower Manhattan: even if I’d known this topic was coming, I couldn’t have done a better job of finding things gone (but not forgotten). We took a walking tour of New Amsterdam sites, now mostly replaced by history markers. In 1653, New Amsterdam became an official Dutch city. The City Tavern became the Stadt Huys (City Hall).

New Amsterdam remnant. Yellow bricks mark City Hall foundation.

Now City Hall is gone, but the outline of its foundation is marked in yellow bricks.

Then on to the old Custom House building, now the Museum of the American Indian. I was feeling a bit mournful myself by that time, and the only photo I took was of this staircase.

Stairway at the Museum of the American Indian

When it was time to head back, we walked past the World Trade Center site. I didn’t know until after we came home that it was the day 1 WTC opened.

World Trade Center, September 11 Memorial and 1 WTC

September 11 Memorial in the foreground

Now back to that Greek stele for just a moment: the curator’s note suggests it’s reminiscent of Aristotle’s description of common beliefs about the dead –

“In addition to believing that those who have exited this life are blessed and happy, we also think that to say anything false or slanderous against them is impious, from our feeling that it is directed against those who have become our betters and superiors.”  — Of the Soul, quoted in Plutarch, A Letter to Apollonius

And of course we also find it hard to let go of their possessions, which is the main reason I started this blog. I get letting go of the things mixed up with fear of letting go of the person — this was my mother’s quilt, Bob’s book, my aunt’s chair, my father’s handkerchief — that’s the root of my problems with downsizing. It’s past time I got over that. Life gets better every day, even though some of my loved ones are gone. I shouldn’t need the evidence of all this ‘stuff’ to remember them. Being here is enough, and as long as I am, they’re not forgotten.

 Now tell me — what do you think of the mourning clothes?

Related sites:

Death Becomes Her, at the Metropolitan Museum through Feb 1, 2016

More on the Weekly Photo Challenge: Gone, but not Forgotten

National Museum of the American Indian

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16 thoughts on “Mourning, and the Weekly Photo Challenge: Gone, but not Forgotten

  1. That is a bit of a fancy brooch – with hair. I wonder if hair is used in other kinds of jewelry and even works of art. I wonder if the hair is real, I suppose it is. The mourning costumes certainly have a touch of pattern about them and I think that’s why they don’t look “flat”.

    I too find it hard to part with my possessions. I have clothes that I bought ten years ago that still fit. Maybe one day they will become my pajamas 🙂

    p/s: I previously posted a comment but then WordPress got all funny with an error message, so I don’t know if that went through.

    • I’ve seen lockets and brooches, but I got curious when reading your comment and searched ‘victorian hair jewelry’ — there are some bizarre things! Who knew there were lockets with chains made of braided hair? There is also horse hair jewelry. There are current hair artists — and a relatively recent ‘Hairball Convention’ (!) I don’t see your previous comment so WordPress must have eaten it. Thanks for ‘spurring’ me on to find out about horse hair et al.

      • You are right. I decided too to google ‘victorian hair jewelry’. Wow, it really is thing, so many pictures of these accessories. I’ve never heard of it in Australia, maybe it’s more popular in the States and UK.

        I don’t know if I’ll be very comfortable at the Hairball Convention. I don’t know, I just don’t like wigs on mannequins…they remind me of creepy-looking dolls.

      • I’d only seen it in museums or sometimes in antique stores, so I was surprised to see there were people still making it — and like you say, some of that stuff is really over the top (oops, that’s pretty close to another bad pun… sorry!)

  2. Sandy, this is such a powerful post. It has me thinking of a ‘mourning ring’ which my mother inherited. She and I went to a big antique valuation day when I was in my twenties. She thought the ring could be worth millions but was was told it was basically worthless. We couldn’t stop laughing the whole way home. I still have it and the odd time I’ve put it on and am transported back to that day of fun and hysterical laughing!

    • It sounds like she was right, and the ring brings millions — of laughs and good memories. love it that your mourning ring has transformed from an expression of sadness and loss to a source of joy. I had such good laughs with my mother too. I still notice little things that I know she and I would have been giggling at, but no one else would understand.

  3. I think the mourning clothes and jewelry are great. Since my son died, each time I wear an angel pin or a butterfly pin, I know that I’m wearing them as a private thought for him.

    But the overabundance of things I’ve kept cause me to print out your last paragraph & post it in my book of important quotes!
    “I get letting go of the things mixed up with fear of letting go of the person.”
    “Life gets better every day, even though some of my loved ones are gone. I shouldn’t need the evidence of all this ‘stuff’ to remember them. Being here is enough, and as long as I am, they’re not forgotten.”

    • Thanks so much for the affirmation, Jan. I love the thought of the angel and butterfly pins. I thought of you and previous comments when I was writing that post, and I appreciate hearing that it resonated with you. I know that holidays can be rough for those of us missing our loved ones, so I hope this season brings you blessings, and I wish you comfort in the new year. — Sandy

  4. Wow, what crazy stuff! I think the hair brooches are a bit freaky. I’d personally just rather keep people in my heart, and not have stuff like that. But then, that’s just me!

    • It is a little bizarre by today’s standards, isn’t it? (Or maybe even borderline creepy?) One thing the exhibition pointed out was that diseases like TB caused people to lose their loved ones with alarming frequency, many women died in childbirth, and a much greater percentage of children didn’t survive their early years. Comparatively rigid social protocol and Queen Victoria’s own attitude and long mourning period for Prince Albert were big influences on how people coped with, or wanted to appear they coped with, loss of loved ones. I get the feeling the rigid clothing standards were more of a problem for the 1%, or maybe the 10% — hard to imagine the rest of us being able to get whole new black wardrobes for 2 or 3 years of mourning. Thanks for reading! — Sandy

      • No doubt! Just imagine having to get a whole new wardrobe. And I don’t know. Maybe it’s just me. But I’d rather have people remember me with happy, bright colors and things! One thing is certain though–customs do change!

    • I’ve been thinking of you and hoping you’re doing well. I remember the darkness of early days of mourning all too clearly. In that sense black does seem appropriate, but like you, I’m glad we don’t have to wear it… If we did have official mourning, I think Chinese white would be a better expression of love, and hope, and gratitude for the time we did get to be together.

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