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Mourning Becomes Elective

November 23, 2003|AL RIDENOUR

Any self-respecting postmodern dandy knows the color black is tragically hip, but Kevin Jones can tell you why. Jones curated the ghoulishly fabulous Victorian displays on view downtown in ''Mourning Glory: Fashion's Untimely Demise,'' at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising. Authentic right down to the human hair jewelry, the tableaux document the fetish for the funereal that swept the world during Queen Victoria's 40-year bereavement after the death of Prince Albert in 1861. A practice with distinct stages that could last years, mourning included children's and doll clothes. It still makes fashion waves today, a point the show underscores with contemporary designer pieces. We asked Jones for words of solace.

We view Victorians as miserably repressed. Were these traditions emotionally stifling?

Not at all. These customs allowed people to channel grief into acceptable realities. And they prevented social blunders. If you saw a woman in deep mourning and started chatting her up, you would be looked on as a cad.

Superstition had it that black made mourners less visible to departed souls hungry for company. Do people still wear black to be less conspicuous?

Black has always helped people keep a low profile. If you're rotund, it can make you look sleeker. In the early industrial era, black was popular in urban areas because it wouldn't show all that soot. It didn't show wear, so the poor liked it. The poverty de luxe style introduced by Coco Chanel in the 1920s was inspired by black garments of the 19th century poor. That would've been the beginning of fashionable black as we know it.

What's with the human hair jewelry?

Hair work has been going on for hundreds of years in part because it's the only part of the body that remains as it was in life. Rich women took this up as a handicraft, making personal mementos from loved ones' hair, but pieces [were also] made from strangers' hair, so a poor girl may supplement the family income like Jo in ''Little Women."

Many people today have never seen a corpse. Has death gone out of style?

We're no longer as close to death. We live longer. We have preventive medicine and corrective surgeries. We rarely hear of a woman dying in childbirth. We rarely go to funerals with an open coffin. When my father recently died, I decided to buy my own tombstone for the family cemetery in Missouri. Many people I've talked to about that feel it's a horrible thing to do because it's ''tempting fate.'' It's as if we've forgotten that any one of us could step off the curb and get hit by a bus.

You mentioned a used-clothing market as part of the mourning industry. Was there no stigma to recycled clothing?

The aristocracy wouldn't [wear used clothes]. But the bourgeoisie had no choice. Mourning lasted so long you had to supplement your wardrobe. You would wear second- or third-hand clothing, or if you couldn't afford that, you would take a garment you already had and dye it black. From that day on we've absolutely become a retro society. We look back on everything. Taking away the stigma of secondhand clothes helped to revive interest in past fashions. The rich go to auctions and spend thousands on old garments.

The show stresses that European mourning still influences fashion. How?

Goth fashion for one, since it's really just a mixture of 19th century mourning clothing with '70s punk. Kids who wear it may not get the correlation, but they're still carrying on the tradition.

Our ''Six Feet Under'' era is more casual.

Mourning in the Victorian style is only really seen on state occasions. Jacqueline Kennedy researched Lincoln's funeral and copied details for JFK's funeral. Her black outfit with the veil over her face was very much a mid-19th century custom. We also saw some of this when Princess Diana and the Queen Mother died.

All that black crepe might hide glee if the dearly departed was unpopular.

There was a lot of hypocrisy involved. Every tour I've given, Scarlett O'Hara is brought up, with her widow's weeds on, dancing at the ball, which shocks everybody. [For example] if you really despised the man you were forced to marry and he's dead, you may be relieved and you may be secretly dating his brother, but you're still following all those social customs on the outside. Today if you really didn't like the person, you may not even go to the funeral, or at least you'd go ahead and wear that yellow dress.

"Mourning Glory: Fashion's Untimely Demise," by appointment only at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising, 919 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles; (213) 623-5821.

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