Fashionable Decay: Death and Dress

Last week I attended a lecture at FIT, a conversation with Rodarte — or rather, the designing duo of sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy — in which they discussed their design process and inspirations. They are an extraordinarily down-to-earth pair who seem to use their intuitions about beauty, rather than a focus on making money, to earn almost every accolade in the industry. In addition, they are adored by all manner of celebrity starlet and engage in collaborations ranging from their hugely popular Target line to most recently designing ballet costumes for the upcoming film “Black Swan.”

But rather than write extensively about Rodarte (as I’ve actually done such elsewhere on WT), I wanted to touch a little on one theme that really struck me while listening to Kate and Laura’s conversation with Valerie Steele.

It seemed that over and over again the Mulleavy sisters referenced instances of decay and death as inspiration for their garments. Sitting in the audience, I really began to question my own conceptions of fashion as I tried to square the physical objects which identify Rodarte — garments which I deem exceptionally beautiful — with the reality that the creators of these garments are often inspired and intrigued by some of the darkest, most macabre moments of life.

It really got me pondering: is fashion perhaps most basically about death? Or some kind of dance with, or mockery or, the inevitability of decay?

The unbridled recent surge of plastic surgery (see Heidi Montag) paired with the enormous focus on the question of retouching reveals that somewhere in the human being is the desire to mold the self into something unabashedly artificial. Even the shift in actual fashion design towards the metallic, the futuristic, and the shape-shifting illustrates an interest in creating almost artificial bodies, molding nature into something entirely “other.” But why then, as we move towards a version of our selves that isn’t even bound by physical limitations, are we still so fascinated by death in fashion?

In Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project he draws special attention to fashion and death. Because of the inherent materialism of fashion (from a Marxist reading), fashion is always in a sense condemned to death, just as the body upon which it is worn will die. The fashioned version of humanity, which is then so anti-nature, explicitly evokes ideas of death. Just as the memento mori still life paintings complete with skulls sought to remind the viewers of their own mortality, maybe beneath the glitz and glamour of fashionable clothing is a lurking skeleton. Layers and layers of false youth will not hide the inevitable aging underneath.

Fashion is especially interesting because it represents the precise meeting point between the natural — the body — and the artificial. As such, it will always demonstrate the intimate play between the two. Surely we use overt artifice to cover over our fear of death. But we also use fabric and material to announce our own flesh. As the Rodarte designers use the effects of tie-dye and marbling to give fabrics the hauntingly beautiful appearance of rotting or decaying flesh, likewise every garment we use to dress actually highlights our unavoidable embodiment.

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  • Kat May 13, 2010 10.18 am

    How appropriate! My program is devoting a special topics course to this subject. I hope the people taking it read this thought-provoking post!

  • melina bee May 13, 2010 12.22 pm

    how fascinating. This makes me think of tuning in to a NPR opera broadcast of Tristan and Isolde as a young pre teen who had just read said work and hearing the radio commentary of how it represented everyone’s quest for either sex or death, that up until a certain age all you want is to get laid and after that you’re waiting to die. Not sure if I feel quite so black and white about it, but certainly has a point. Not surprised to hear that about this amazing duo. I had read that their famous x-ray sequin dress for Target last year was inspired by Harold, from Harold and Maude,’s dark and deeply morbid sense of humor. Great post!

  • Mellissa May 18, 2010 04.29 pm

    Valerie Steele actually wrote some really interesting commentary about this link between fashion and death for the “Gothic: Dark Glamour” show, at the Museum at FIT last fall. For those who didn’t have opportunity to see the show, the catalogue is also beautiful and definitely worth checking out.

    Kat–just out of curiosity, what is your program?

  • Maggie May 26, 2010 09.54 am

    I think you’ve noticed a key theme in fashion here. I especially like your comment about fashion “announcing our flesh” and embodiment. For some reason, this post makes me think of the sickly sweet smell of decaying, wilting peonies or honeysuckles or lilacs. For me, the smell of decaying flowers captures the sentiment in your post about fashion as fascinated and playing with death and decay, while celebrating sensuous pleasures and beauty.

    If you haven’t yet seen Caroline Evans’s book Fashion at the Edge: Spectacle, Modernity, and Deathliness, you should take a look at it. She also uses Marx and Benjamin in her analysis. Judith Clarke’s exhibit and accompanying catalog Spectres: When Fashion Turns Back builds on Evans’s work, as well. Both excellent books–thought-provoking and lushly illustrated.


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