Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Fashion of Mourning

I have been a docent at Historic Deepwood Estate in Salem, Oregon for a little over two years now. One thing I never get tired of is opening up the house in the morning and closing it up at the end of the day. I love seeing the morning light stream through the stained glass windows on the east side of the house. In the late afternoon, observing corners of the house recede into shadows is so calming. It is usually very quiet in the old mansion at those times and I always take a moment to imagine the occupants of the house 100 years ago and what they were doing at that exact time of the day in a world that was so profoundly different than mine.

Every season the exhibits in the upstairs bedroom change. In the spring and summer, because Deepwood is such a popular venue in Salem for weddings, there is usually an exhibit of Victorian wedding dresses, wedding cake toppers, or some other sort of celebratory relic fitting for the time of year, such as an early 20th century graduation gown. Today as I passed by the west bedroom, sometimes referred to as “the children’s room” for historical reasons, I was momentarily startled by what I saw.

This Fall Historic Deepwood Estate will showcase Victorian mourning garments and paraphernalia. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s women who lost a husband, child, or other close family member, would dress in black, head-to-toe, for at least a year. They wore special jewelry for their time of woe. Black brooches pinned to their dresses were most often adorned with a lock of their dead loved one’s hair. Some of this jewelry as well as a funeral cards, and ornaments made of human hair are also included in the exhibit.

As I stared at these garments from the doorway there was a moment I thought they were going to glide silently toward me, pass by and through me, and, without looking back, disappear through the wall on the other side of the hall. 

My job at Deepwood fulfills some very important job criteria for me. It allows me to give back to my community and fulfill a duty we all have to preserve history, culture and local heritage. It also feeds my gluttonous imagination. How perfect.

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