Dialogue Between Fashion and Death

Katharine Zarrella on the macabre and sombre

by Katharine K. Zarrella .

I dealt – and am still dealing - with the loss of my mother one of the only ways I knew how: through clothing. I lashed out, and held on, through my wardrobe. And while it may sound like a shallow approach, I found fleeting but welcome comfort in doing so.

Death and fashion are sisters, or so asserts Giacomo Leopardi in his 1824 poem, Dialogue Between Fashion and Death. As the pair chat in Leopardi’s verses, Fashion emerges as a supreme villain, aiding Death in her duties by convincing frivolous men and women to ‘adopt the most preposterous kinds of clothing,’ regardless of the detrimental health consequences (think suffocating corsets and crippling heels). While it may sound sinister, Dialogue is really a playful little poem that pokes fun at fashion’s blind devotees. But after considering the A/W 15 collections, I’m inclined to believe that there is more to Fashion and Death’s relationship than Leopardi’s work would suggest.

‘Fashion [is] a kind of constant memento mori,’ says Harold Koda, the curator in charge of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, of the bond between fashion and death. ‘As soon as a trend is born, it is destined to die. Nothing is permanent in fashion, and its very ephemerality is suggestive of our own quick passage.’ This particular musing was not directly explored in Death Becomes Her: A Century of Morning Attire, last October’s Koda-curated Met show that displayed over thirty examples of mourning attire worn between the years of 1815 and 1915. ‘I’ve been interested in the rituals of mourning, and also the way fashion, which generally suppresses the darker elements of life, seems to flirt with the imagery of mortality,’ Koda explains. ‘In German there is the concept of Liebestod, the ‘love death,’ and in French ‘la petite mort’ or the little death, which is an orgasm. This odd pairing of death and eros might be the subliminal opening for fashion. Punk and Goth all have allusions to death in their iconography that long preceded our show.’

Perhaps it was coincidence, but this exhibition seemed to set off a chain reaction, with designers from New York to Paris centering their collections on death and mourning. Sarah Burton’s decaying rose-inspired lineup for Alexander McQueen, Riccardo Tisci’s Gothic turn for Givenchy, and, to some extent, Yohji Yamamoto’s sorrowful, silent parade of black-clad brides all explored these themes. New York-based designer Thom Browne was directly influenced by the Costume Institute’s exhibition (though he refused to see it to avoid any derivative references), and staged an emotive show replete with angels, a funeral and a decadently dressed grim reaper. Browne was moved by ‘the idea that mourning is not always such a sad thing. I wanted to make mourning clothing that looked romantic and beautiful, and I thought that very uplifting,’ he says. ‘For me, mourning someone’s life is appreciating and celebrating what they did, as opposed to being sad that they’re not there anymore.’ However, Browne made sure to note that he doesn’t take his inspirations literally. ‘We used the reference in a respectful way, but we were really just focused on beautifully made clothes. Each piece was very special.’

Gareth Pugh, on the other hand, works the other way around - his grandiose designs are a vehicle through which he can project his message. ‘If it was just about a pretty dress, I think I’d get bored very easily,’ he says. ‘It needs to be about something more than that. What’s most important for me with my shows is that the image we present penetrates on a deep level.’ In that sense, Pugh’s A/W 15 collection, which marked his brand’s tenth anniversary and a return to London after showing in Paris for seven years, was an overwhelming success.

Pugh set the tone for his show, which was held in the Victoria & Albert museum, with a chill-inducing film by collaborator Ruth Hogben. It starred model and actress Aymeline Valade, who was projected upon a mammoth screen at the end of the catwalk, and often appeared smeared with red paint reminiscent of blood. The experience was akin to some kind of pagan ritual, a sensation that was amplified by models’ voluminous black gowns and imposing headdresses, and repetitive chants that boomed over the speakers. ‘I was exploring the idea of being part of something bigger than yourself, and about having faith - blind faith - in something that you can’t necessarily control,’ says Pugh. ‘Sometimes, it’s quite nice to play on people’s insecurities.’ 

Rei Kawakubo unleashed one of the most powerful collections of the season by doing just that. Titled Ceremony of Separation, Kawakubo’s Comme des Garçons show moved a number of stone-faced editors - this one included - to tears. But in all honestly, you’d have to be completely numb not to have been affected by Kawakubo’s performance. Wearing sculpted black or white lace confections that were at once serene and cloudlike, models slowly walked down a narrow runway, stopping in the center to exchange longing glances as they passed. Mindboggling construction and detail aside, the show felt like watching two souls peacefully and painfully parting ways. ‘I have been interested in the idea of ceremony for some while now,’ says Kawakubo. ‘I find the collective energy and ritualistic strength inherent in any ceremony fascinating. For the A/W 15 ladies, I worked on the ultimate ceremony of parting or separation. I thought of the connection and synergy between the adornment of those that are departing and the formal and ceremonious clothing of those that are saying goodbye. I imagined that the pain of separating can be overcome and relieved in a way by a new beauty and strength derived from the act of ceremony.’

Kawakubo’s words and collection had an especially profound effect on me. I had lost my mother to cancer only months before seeing the Comme des Garçons show, and the models’ gazes reminded me of my final moments with her. Though it was the finale gown - a black lace Faberge egg-like creation embellished with tiny frilled dresses - that thrust me into an emotional climax of sorrow and acceptance. Who knew a fashion show could help facilitate the five stages of grief.

I dealt - and am still dealing - with the loss of my mother one of the only ways I knew how: through clothing. I’ve worn black nearly everyday for the last eight years for purely aesthetic reasons, but following my mother’s death, I took my look to new extremes. I dressed with anger and aggression, shielding myself in severe silhouettes and abrasive hats that screamed out but hid my face. Each day, I wore a piece of my mother’s jewellery. I still do. It serves as my own memento mori. I lashed out, and held on, through my wardrobe. And while it may sound like a shallow approach, I found fleeting but welcome comfort in doing so.

I’m not the first person who’s coped with loss by altering her appearance. Perhaps the figure most famous for doing so was Queen Victoria. ‘When I think of mourning attire, I think of her,’ says Pugh, referencing the fact that Victoria wore black every day between her husband Albert’s death and her own. ‘The joy of fashion is that it communicates with people on a visual level. The act of dressing in black was quite a distant thing. It kept everybody at arms distance. It reminded people what she’d gone through and that she was still yearning for her other half.’

Considering the multitude of complex sartorial, emotional and spiritual layers that surround mortality and mourning, it’s easy to understand why designers - like so many artists, poets, authors, and philosophers before them - are drawn to death. In the last 50 years alone, some of the most prolific designers and photographers have built legacies by traversing the topic. In the seventies and eighties, Guy Bourdin accosted us with his unnerving, subversive photographs of lifeless women. One of his snaps recreated the scene of his wife Solange’s suicide. Another shows a model face down in a pool of melted lipstick that resembles blood. His obsession with death went beyond his fashion work - he reportedly desired to embark upon a project photographing corpses in a morgue, and for one infamous shoot, he wanted to douse models in glue, jewels, and black pearls. When the editor on set told Bourdin that covering the women in such a way would suffocate and kill them, the photographer replied, ‘Oh it would be beautiful, to have them dead in bed!’

Similarly, the late Lee Alexander McQueen rarely produced a collection without morbid undertones - they were present in his 1992 Central Saint Martins graduate collection, and continued through to his A/W 10 outing. The feathered cape from that show, which took place following the designer’s tragic suicide and featured the last garments he worked on, evoked images of an angel ascending into heaven. ‘I don’t see it as aggressive, I see it as romantic,’ the designer once told Suzy Menkes when discussing his preoccupation with death. Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci, too, has a predilection for the dark side. During his A/W 10 couture presentation, which featured diaphanous white dresses embellished with spinal details, he told Tim Blanks that his otherworldly collection represented, ‘a romantic way to see death.’

‘Addressing the notion of death still feels a bit transgressive - the thrill of flirting with a scary subject,’ says Koda when asked what spurred A/W 15’s death-tinged collections. ‘The whole notion of the sublime, of the terror of beauty, in a small way might contribute to the fascination by contemporary designers. Or [designers] might just like to play with the restrictive codes of another system and upend them.  The most creative designers are always looking for rules to break, even historical ones.’

‘It’s sometimes nice to remind people of death,’ says Pugh while pondering his own attraction to the concept. He adds that, particularly in North America and Europe, ‘death is something [people think they] should be scared of, and they try to forget about it. Time is finite. We don’t have a lot of it, and all of those elements are very interesting to me personally.’ Others, however, are less carefree when it comes to interests in dark matters. ‘I remember Karl Lagerfeld said when McQueen died that if a designer plays too closely with death, something bad may happen.’

Indeed, there is a danger - if only a psychological one - in obsessing over death. Sure, cloaking oneself in outfits that quite literally have death at their core could easily be perceived as twisted, to say the least. But as Kawakubo, Koda, Browne, and Pugh have mentioned, death isn’t necessarily as devastating as most make it out to be, and ignoring death is equally as dangerous as allowing it to consume you. It’s undeniable that death’s release has its own beauty - they do say that parting is such sweet sorrow. And what better way to come to terms with our own mortality than through clothing? It is, after all, an unavoidable and universal form of expression.

That’s not to say that Leopardi got it all wrong - his poem just mischaracterizes Fashion and Death. Neither are the duplicitous evils Dialogue makes them out to be. When it comes to death, fashion can help us heal, if only a little. And there’s nothing villainous about that.