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Historical Exhibit Lifts The Veil On The Fashion Of Death In Berkshire County

An embroidered silk shows a woman mourning in black over a headstone under a weeping willow
Erin Hunt
Berkshire County Historical Society
Mourning Silk, c. 1805. Embroidery on Silk. Gift of Mrs. Harrison F. Kendrick.

The Berkshire County Historical Society is exploring the world of fashion around death and mourning with a new exhibit in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

The exhibit – titled Lifting the Veil: Mourning in the Berkshires – is an effort to add new color to monochromatic images of death and grief from the 18th and 19th centuries.

“People have their kind of stereotypical images of mourning dresses, and women in black and their black veils and everything, which, a lot of that is rooted in truth. But it’s varied depending on kind of what stage of mourning they were in, and how kind of distanced they were from the death of the loved one," said Berkshire County Historical Society Curator Erin Hunt. “In that first phase of mourning, in the deepest mourning, they were wearing this sort of stereotype of the black mourning dress. It was of a lot of black crepe, a lot of very simple fabrics. There wasn't a lot of kind of decorative elements. Jewelry was allowed if it was just black jet. And then in the next phase, they could start introducing some more color to that, some more kind of decorative fabrics. They were still wearing black, but they could add some color to their cuffs and to the collars, as sort of decorative elements. And that was usually just grays and purples at that point. And then sort of in the final phase in what they called ‘half mourning,’ they could start introducing dresses in colors, but still staying with those, the grays and the purples, and still being fairly simple. But they could start adding some colors at that point.”

A black dress
Erin Hunt
Berkshire County Historical Society
Wrapper, c. 1880. Wool crape and taffeta. Gift of Mrs. John Pixley.

One of Hunt’s favorite pieces in the exhibit is an embroidered mourning silk.

“It’s this large, large framed piece that shows a woman in a graveyard with some weeping willows around her," described Hunt. "And these mourning silks were fairly common during that time. Most girls and young women were taught needlework as part of their education, and so this was a form of kind of expression that was very accessible to all different kind of different people of different classes, that it was a way for them to kind of express their grief, but kind of through their creativity.”

The exhibit also features ritual jewelry from the grieving practices of the era.

“A lot of times the mourning jewelry was something that was distributed at a funeral, versus being created by an individual, and handed out to kind of the primary mourners at a ceremony," Hunt explained. "So that's what a lot of people think of mourning rings. A lot of those were produced in quantity to be distributed at the funerals, and also handkerchiefs and gloves could fall kind of fall into that category.”

Hunt says the collection on display isn’t just limited to silks, garments and accessories.

“Another thing that I thought was kind of interesting that we have [is] a nice kind of small collection of that also ties in with being at the funeral itself were coffin plaques that would say in ‘memory of our dear son,’ or in ‘memory of so and so,’ that would be attached to the coffin, but more symbolically," said Hunt. "It wasn't something that was left on the coffin as identification or something. And then it would be given to the family as sort of a memento of their loved one or of, a lot of times, the ones that were held on to, or the ones that we at least have in our collection, were from the death of children or a younger person.”

A coffin plate for a six year old
Erin Hunt
Berkshire County Historical Society
Coffin Plate, 19th Century. Silver Plate. Gift of Brittany Harpin.

In researching the exhibit, Hunt also created a parallel study of Pittsfield’s cemeteries across the centuries.

“They founded the first cemetery kind of shortly after Pittsfield became officially a town. And that's over, it's sort of between kind of North and School Streets, it's over there," said the curator. "But what they didn't really plan for was how quickly the city was going to expand. The cemetery pretty much filled up by, I believe it was around 1830. And so they established a new burial ground, this is where the First Street Common is now. And so they started moving the bodies to this new burial ground - but then, and this took us several years, and there was a local physician who stepped forward and threatened to sue the town if they continued with moving the bodies because he could see that this was going to keep happening because they weren't finding large enough spaces.”

That led the city to establish its major cemetery as it exists today on Wahconah Street in Pittsfield’s West Side.

“It was much larger, it was over 130 acres," continued Hunt. "And it was really kind of this functional decision, but it also was such a beautiful spot. And this was around the time when cemeteries sort of changed in terms of the whole way they were approached, in terms of landscaping, in terms of, just sort of this beautiful space for reflection of the loved ones to go and kind of visit these really beautiful spaces, these kind of park-like spaces in a city.”

Lifting the Veil: Mourning in the Berkshires is on display at Arrowhead, the historic home of legendary author Herman Melville, through October.

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