'Death Becomes Her:' British royalty headlines NY show

Mourning garments are displayed during a press preview as the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute opens “Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire.

NEW YORK - The Oscar-winning Hollywood comedy "Death Becomes Her" has lent its name to a New York exhibition that reveals nothing was more becoming to a 19th century widow than black crepe.

With dozens of dresses, jewelry, hats, accessories and magazine prints, the exhibition, which opens Tuesday, looks back on a time when European and American women had to conform to rigid norms of outward grief.

But not all mourning garb was created equal: from matronly black silk taffeta worn by Queen Victoria to the French sequined gowns of her daughter-in-law Queen Alexandra, the collection explores the crossover between grief and fashion.

The exhibition at the newly renovated Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art - the institution's first for fall in seven years - also makes play of the sexual allure of an attractive young widow, unburdened by marital obligations but at risk of predatory male advances.

"Black is becoming and young widows, fair, plump, and smiling, with their roguish eyes sparkling under their black veils are very seducing," wrote an American etiquette book published in 1855.

Gabriel Faure's requiem is piped through the Institute, while quotations from women's private writings, magazines and books fade in and out in ghostly style on the walls.

"For many women this was a form of emotional expression, and they really felt their mourning dress was an indication of their inner feelings of grief," said assistant curator Jessica Regan.

Others complained about the monotony or expense of buying an all-black wardrobe, which could give way to monochrome, or shades of gray and mauve to signal the gradual easing of grief.

More opulent satins, taffeta and velvet could be worn later but were considered too sumptuous for initial periods of mourning.

Queen Victoria in mourning

The exhibition would not be complete without an 1894-95 dress of Queen Victoria, that most famous of 19th century widows who spent the 40 years she lived after the death of her husband in mourning.

But the collection's most stunning entries are the two sequined gowns, in mauve and in black silk tulle with sequins, made in 1902 and worn by Queen Alexandra the year following her mother-in-law's death.

Organized chronologically and featuring items from 1815 to 1915, the exhibit is sourced largely from the Costume Institute but includes two Scottish outfits from the Victoria and Albert Museum.

American mourning was heavily influenced by England, which was in turn dictated by the royal court. It could last two years for a husband, a year for a parent and six months for a sibling.

It was also a century in which black became more fashionable and a mark of sophistication and elegance, as black dye was expensive.

Contemporary fashion may retain a sense that black is elegant, but the code of mourning is seen as so at odds with 21st century America that the curators want viewers to go home challenged.

"I think we're a generation where death is at such a remove," said Harold Koda, curator in charge of the Costume Institute.

"I have a feeling that we're just in this era where we haven't had something where there is a kind of cultural crisis where many people we know are dead. It just hasn't happened." With Halloween around the corner, he saw an ability to fantasize about death as divorced from those who have truly suffered loss.

"I see people dressing up, and I think, well, that's because you can like zombies and you can like vampires, because it's all fantasy - but when you really think about death it's not pretty," he said.

The exhibition runs until February 1.