By the time May arrived, the pandemic had left me despondent and unsure of the future. But when Vogue released their May issue, which featured a preview of the (postponed) Costume Institute’s spring exhibition, I found myself craving a glimpse. I picked up a physical copy at the grocery store (the only place I left my house to go) and devoured the spread.
An exquisite late-Victorian era black dress (c. 1895) captivated me. Its silk satin caught the light and showed brilliantly on the page. I lingered over it, mesmerized by its artistic beauty: the high neckline, the delicate silk netting on the bodice, the puff and curve of the gigot sleeve, the cinched waist, rounded hips, and flared skirt, the decorative bows at the collar, waist and cuffs. In a way, it reminded me of a mourning dress, and seemed to perfectly encapsulate how I had been feeling. I was in mourning for all the things that had been lost in the pandemic: lives, jobs, freedoms, the future we all envisioned.
But the more I looked at the dress, the more I realized it wasn’t a mourning dress. It was too spirited. The caption said it was a “silk dinner dress by Mrs. Arnold,” who I discovered was a little-known dressmaker from Brooklyn. I thought about the dinners the woman who wore this dress attended and the life she led. The more I envisioned the life lived in this dress, the further I moved away from the loss in my own life. I became excited to see the dress in real life, and a sliver of hope returned. Life would resume, maybe not the same, but it would go on. As uncertain of the future as I still was, I never stopped returning to that black dinner dress to remind me that mourning would end, and we would once more wear black dresses to dinner.
Brian Centrone is a fashion historian with an almost macabre fascination with Victorian mourning attire.
The Costume Institute began in 1937 as The Museum of Costume Art. In 1946, The Museum of Costume Art consolidated with The Metropolitan Museum of Art and was renamed The Costume Institute.