In college I noticed something new on the coat of a sartorially-eccentric friend. “What’s with the black armband?” I asked. “Some sort of fascist thing?”

“It’s for my father,” he said simply.

That’s the only time I’ve seen someone wear mourning. And my friend, after one too many encounters with similarly foot-in-mouth undergraduates, stopped wearing the armband because it got too grueling to keep explaining. It no longer served as an outer key to his inner grief; it no longer signified anything at all.

Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire,” showing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through February 1, explores the long last days of formal mourning in Britain, France, and the United States. The show covers 1815 through 1915: the rise of department stores with “mourning departments” (imagine the Grace Bros. sitcom you could set in one of those!), the death of Prince Albert, and the decline of mourning wear in the face of modern war.

The exhibit is reached through the Egyptian wing–all those mummies and sarcophagi to get you in the mood–and weeping willows are painted in the stairwell leading down to it. The dimly-lit room full of gowns is haunted by requiem music; you can buy your own jet jewelry at a small sales desk. Like Victorian mourning in general, it’s a little too much, a little lugubrious and gooey and aware of being observed.

Mourning dresses are a school for designers: The restrictions on color and fabric heighten the need for interesting textural contrasts and fashionable silhouettes. The gowns in this show use embroidery, scalloped trains, lace, and beading to give hints of personality and even sexuality. There are two glorious gowns in moire silk, streaked with light like rippling black water. There are French “half-mourning” gowns shimmering with sequins. There’s a retro-futuristic gown from American mourning specialists James McCreery & Co. in black, white, and purple, with a startling zigzag trim, colorful bands over the neck, and full gigot sleeves. There’s a half-mourning wedding dress used during the American Civil War. There is, on occasion, decolletage.

Widows weren’t just emotionally distraught. They were also newly available. Their black garments convey all the chastity–and challenge–of a nun’s habit, but this was a nun you were allowed to court. Widows, a quotation projected onto the gallery wall reminds us, were “often imagined as dangerously independent and alluring.” And the widows themselves were sometimes the ones doing the imagining: When one young widow was scolded by her mother for prolonging her period of formal mourning, she replied, “Don’t you see, it saves me the expense of advertising for a husband.”

Now that we’ve lost the traditions of formal mourning, we may be tempted to assume that they were gentler and more protective than they really were: that they were fortifications against human nature, rather than products of it. Mourning served all the purposes the human imagination could devise for it. They were “a shield to the real mourner… [and] a curtain of respectability to the one who should be a mourner but is not,” as Harper’s Bazaar noted in 1886; but the very fact that everyone knew a fox’s heart might beat under a sable cloak meant that formal mourning couldn’t protect sincere mourners from scrutiny and insensitivity.

We’re in the process of re-formalizing mourning. Instead of restrictions on color and fabric for the mourners, we are developing restrictions on speech for their friends and neighbors. The lists (and listicles) which try to teach you what to say and what never to say to a bereaved person are intended to free us from the bruising, pitiful world where everybody says what he thinks. The expressions we’re left with (“I’m so sorry”) may not have the somber beauty of a moire gown, but they have the beauty of simplicity and humility in the face of other people’s pain. They acknowledge that there are roles in life which must be played no matter how you feel about them, and the role of the mourner is not the same as the role of the mourner’s friend. Like traditions generally, the new rules of formal mourning attempt to honor a necessary suffering. They embed us in our social world rather than trapping us in our own special selves.

The Metropolitan Museum’s merry widows, however, suggest that tradition and rules only go so far. Judgment, callousness, and mixed motives will always find a way to repurpose the rules.

And I won’t lie: Mixed motives have given us some great fashion over the years. I covet those fingerless lace gloves may not be the best thing to think at a funeral–but such thoughts are as old and as human as tears.

Eve Tushnet is a TAC contributing editor, blogs at Patheos.com, and is the author of the recently-released book Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith.