Women in the Gothic Tradition: Two New Exhibits Highlight Women’s roles

Mourning group

Earlier this week, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute opened their first fall exhibition in seven years. The theme that would warrant such a rare event? Mourning Attire. The exhibit, “Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire”,  displays about 30 ensembles dating from 1815 – 1915. It is a reminder of just how much the contemporary Gothic aesthetic owes to Victorian mourning attire and the women who wore it.Since customs dictated that after a death, mourning was to occur in three phases over the course of 2 years, one could easily spend much of their life in mourning attire (given the high mortality of the time). After Prince Albert’s death, Queen Victoria spent an incredible 40 years in black mourning dress. Throughout the century highlighted in the exhibit, Victoria and her female contemporaries made melancholy glamourous. What would become central to the Gothic aesthetic was carried (literally) on the shoulders of women.

Mourning 1

A mourning ensemble from the early 1870s.

Though the horror and violence that is often present in the Gothic literature of the time may give the impression that the Gothic was a man’s world, it was women, again, who really pushed the Gothic tradition forward. Can you imagine the void there would be in the world of Gothic literature if it weren’t for Ann Radcliffe, Mary Shelley, the Brontë Sisters, and countless other female authors? And perhaps more importantly, if not for eager female readership? Despite how hard it is to picture prim and proper Victorian ladies gleefully indulging in tales of murder and diabolism, the Gothic was actually considered a women’s genre. For most of the 19th century, men saw themselves as too rational to bother with the “flights of fancy found in Gothic novels”, as Anna Mckie writes in her observations on women in the new Terror and Wonder exhibit.

Women reading Gothic novels

A cartoon mocks stereotypical readers of Gothic novels (1802)

Yet for women, the Gothic wasn’t all irrationality and “flights of fancy”. It was Ann Radcliffe and other female authors who introduced the device of rationally explaining supposed supernatural events in Gothic novels– For them, the horror wasn’t necessarily the incomprehensible and preternatural, but the all-too real violences and injustices done to women in these novels. Writing about these taboo themes– at least hinting at them– might have been a way to bring these injustices to light. And the heroines of these novels who triumphed over systems of oppression perhaps gave a modicum of hope and inspiration to the stifled female readers in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Read more in Anna Mckie’s article on the “Terror and Wonder” exhibit, “How women were the early goths“.

Visit the official page of the Met’s exhibit here.


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