Friday, December 10, 2010

Fashion and Funerals

Terry Richardson for Vogue Paris (via )
From time to time, the world of fashion casts its eye on the funeral.  The photo above shows cheeky photographer, Terry Richardson's take on a Spaghetti Western funeral procession in the December 2010 issue of Vogue Italia.  Perhaps funerals are in the minds of fashion designers and photographers in the wake of the tragic suicides of Alexander McQueen this year, and his muse and patron, fashion icon, Isabella Blow in 2007.  Following the death of another legendary designer, Yves St. Laurent in 2008, an issue of Vogue Paris was dedicated in his memory, along with many funeral themed editorial photographs.  Certainly, there is enough death in this world to provide inspiration for a thousand editorials and couture collections.  What is of interest to me is what we can learn from fashion's take on the funeral and its rituals.  

The August 2008 issue of Vogue Paris dedicated to the late Yves St. Laurent
(via fashionologie)
Fashion, in its design, styling and presentation, is an art focused on the human being.  Whether we admit to it or not, our clothing communicates a strong message, to ourselves and to those around us, of who we are as individuals, and which communities we feel a part of.  To understand just how important our clothes are to maintaining our sense of self, we have only to look at how useful taking an individual's own clothes away is, in breaking down a sense of individuality, as it is practiced in prisons, military training, and religious cults. 

Chanel fall 2009 Couture

The positive side of clothing as a manifestation of self, is that fashion presents us with an opportunity to re-examine ourselves and our relationship with the world and events in our lives.  Not only can our clothing express for us how we are feeling to ourselves and others, it gives those ideas a physical reality.  Is the wedding really happening  if we are in a track suit?  Is the child christened, or just taking a bath if she is not in a baptismal gown?  Is the priest on duty without his clerical collar?
When we dress for a funeral, we acknowledge the reality of the death and its importance.  When we dress for a funeral like Daphne Guinness did in the photo below, we are telling our self and the world that the life and death of Alexander McQueen were life changing experiences for us.

Real-life fashion funeral attendees Daphne Guinness and Naomi Campbell
arrive at the services for Designer, Alexander McQueen (via
As important as acknowledgement and expression are to us as grieving humans, the creative side of dressing can play an even more important part for us as we move forward.  Even the simplest and most commonly worn article of clothing carries with it a world of meanings and connotations, and so, selecting our habillement  for a special ceremony in our life  is an occasion of creative importance.  Who are we?  What kind of person are we in our grief?   What is our new role in life going to be without this person?  What communities are we representing and in turn, relying on for emotional and spiritual support?  Are we angry at God, at society, at war, at the undertaker?  Do we run from our traditions or fall back into the fold?  Do we wear proudly a token of our relationship with the deceased, or find comfort being lost in the crowd of others?

In all these things, our choice of clothing tells others and reminds us, of how we feel.   By trying on our options ( at least in our minds) we find what feels right and what doesn't.      

A shot from the August 2008 editorial
 There is a very theatrical aspect to these photos, and to clothing in general.  That is not to say that it is false or trivial, though.  Theater is a basic and elemental form of human communication.  The models in this cemetery scene may not be up for any Academy awards for their roles, but perhaps they are typecast in our minds, having been called on to emote only icy indifference or smoldering lust in previous photo shoots.  Over-the-top expressions of grief, however, are as old as time, and more often a form of expression than falsehood.  

A priest I once knew told me of overcoming excessive drama at the grave.  Sometimes an overwrought widow would cast herself into the grave and refuse to budge from the top of the lowered casket.  The priest said that just a sprinkle of dirt into the grave would send her out like a rocket.

A shot from the August 2008 editorial

Of course these ladies did not desire to be buried alive with their husbands, but what they were communicating by wailing and climbing onto the casket was real.  They allowed themselves a theatrical moment to respond to a dramatic and devastating change in their lives, and that is a reaction that may have more honesty than carrying on quietly.  We all act out our roles- acting strong when we feel weak, acting mad when we're scared, even behaving in a manner that is consistent with how we feel is acting. 

A shot from the August 2008 editorial

The richness of human experience is not limited, however by the poles of emotional expression.  We are different in so many other ways, and we revel in it.  In a world of straight black hair, we are recognized by other traits.  In a room full of black suits, the cut, fit and fabric of each stands out.  Fashion design is a world of possibilities.  When we accept that our clothing choices are not just defaults but meaningful expressions, the importance of consciously making those choices becomes clear.    

Christian Lacroix fall 2009 couture from Vogue Italia
A funeral is a symbolic occasion.  People choose environmentally friendly funerals after spending a lifetime driving a car and adding to landfills.  People are buried from church who have spent their Sundays drinking and watching football.  Those with faults are eulogized, and this is not hypocracy.  It is a special time for special gestures and rituals that transcend our ordinary experience.  When we are dressed in a special way, we see ourselves in a special way and the day is different from all other days.  My old high school principal told me that he would be happy to allow students to dress casually for the school prom, but having tried this in the past, he knew that when students were dressed up, they behaved differently.  The same is true for adults.

A shot from the August 2008 editorial

With all this focus on funeral fashions, you might be surprised to know that some find the fashion houses lacking in choices for the bereaved.  Well, think about it, there are multiple glossy magazines for brides on the news stands, but have you ever seen a copy of 'Modern Widow'?  Leonor Scherrer, Givenchy model and daughter of couturier, Jean-Louis Scherrer is looking to fill the gap.

Leonor Scherrer in Vogue Paris November 2009
Ms. Scherrer reportedly found slim pickings in Europe's fashion houses for weeds to wear to Yves St. Laurent's funeral, and decided to open her own house specifically to provide high end mourning wear.  Here is an excerpt from the New York Times magazine article on her by Stephen Heyman:

“Death has become banal,” proclaims Leonor Scherrer, the daughter of the French couturier Jean-Louis Scherrer and the mind behind : Leonor Funeral Couture. Scherrer is building a fashion line to outfit the bereaved that harks back to a time when “a widow’s mourning dress was closely observed,” as in Goya’s painting of the Duchess of Alba.  Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci digs the six-feet-under-obsessed Scherrer, featuring her in a recent ad campaign. “I’m completely in love with her,” he told Women’s Wear Daily. “For me, she represents France in all senses: the elegance, the aristocracy” — and, évidemment — “the darkness.” 

A shot from the August 2008 editorial
Certainly those in mourning don't find death to be banal.  They find it earth shattering and painful both emotionally and physically.  They struggle to make sense out of a world where their guideposts and routines and sense of self are shattered.  I don't make light of their situation, and I don't think that Ms. Scherrer meant to do so either.  Perhaps it is not death, but our cookie cutter reactions and 'solutions' to it that have become banal.
A shot from the August 2008 editorial
There is another lesson for us to learn from fashion.  Just like funeral rituals, it is not necessarily the newest designs that resonate the most, but not everyone wants to buy the same thing they sold 20 years ago.  Some looks are timeless and just need a fresh approach.  I'm thinking veils, black crepe, and lace here.  Similarly, the participation of pallbearers, a symbolic procession, and an opportunity to share and express one's feelings of loss are timeless essentials in a funeral service.
Not everyone will want to wear jumpsuits or primary colors, and not everyone will want to have a pass-the-microphone service or a video tribute.  Some trends go in and out of fashion, just as some names sound fresh and everyone gets named 'Alex' before you know it.  We all live in the same culture, so a great many of us grow interested and weary of certain ideas at around the same time.
What is most important, and the fashion houses know this better than most, is that we must continue to stay relevant to a culture, and to individuals, whose desires and perspectives change and evolve constantly, but always need the same basic things.  

What's Next?
(Just kidding - I photoshopped a casket into this ad!)


gloriamundi said...

Generally I despise and fear the influence the world of fashion has on our psyches and our culture - women's self-image and mental health, for example - so my heart sunk when I saw this article on your blog, Patrick. How wrong I was. This is full of thoughtfulness, wisdom, and a lovely joke at the end. Most rewarding, thanks. It's even made me think again about the way fashion works.

Sister Shirley said...

"When we dress for a funeral, we acknowledge the reality of the death and its importance. When we dress for a funeral like Daphne Guinness did in the photo below, we are telling our self and the world that the life and death of Alexander McQueen were life changing experiences for us."

Such a wonderful and true point, thank you so much for this insight. The last few services I've been to, it seems most attendees don't want to wear black because it's morbid and depressing. On one hand I understand the need to treat a service as a celebration more than a loss, your point about clothing signifying that this day is like no other tremendously important.

Charles Cowling said...

When I started reading this my feelings were close to those of Gloriamundi. You have entirely won me round. There's a lot of research here and a huge amount of thought. It's beautifully written, too.

Yes, sense of occasion, sense of theatre -- special rituals, special gestures, making it special. So much wisdom here!

I think you have restored the importance and I hope people will talk about this. It's certainly reconfigured my thinking. Thank you!

TJMac said...

Thats a nice casket...who makes that!??

Patrick McNally said...

The casket in the picture was an Aurora Golden Sand that I re-colored inside and out and added D&G hardware to.

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