Intersecting Fashion and Culture in Death: Cloth Beyond the Grave

French philosopher Albert Camus said, “Without culture, and the relative freedom it implies, society, even when perfect, is but a jungle. This is why any authentic creation is a gift to the future” (Rabalais). On April 23, 2014, my grandmother Joan Ellen Brown-Breen had gone from alive, to being a memory. So, I think of that gentle woman, dressed in a classic Land’s End blue gauge cardigan and bright white tights sitting across from the many meals we endured. I picture her making sure her lipstick stayed on after her sip of hot coffee and fidgeting with a handkerchief tucked under the white collared sleeve of her button-down shirt. And what is embedded in my grandmother’s demeanor is a part of a culture, a history, and a materiality of that handkerchief that marks a memory. If Camus believes in culture bringing about a future, my grandmother has set up a gift for me, and the magic of cloth and dress behind those we have lost can set a philosophy of not only remembrance, but fashion living beyond the person in death; in that sense, there is a death in fashion.

The past life of cloth does not end, as a person’s life does and in that death, the cloth remains as a symbol. Umberto Eco and Peter Stallybrass capture how clothes go beyond the idea of objects to become symbols of past and present motions. To start, we must understand how these symbols are interpreted in a broader sense. Eco’s “Social Life as a System”, shows a clear emphasis on fashion being used as codes, messages and symbols that are acted through gestures and demeanor. He states: “I am speaking through my clothes…Obviously, fashion codes are less articulate, more subject to historical fluctuations than linguistic codes” (Eco 144). His comparison of semiotics in clothing are interpreted just as easily and frequently as our movement is; as well, the history of fashion changes our interpretation of how we decode these symbols. Fashion symbolizes class and economic standards. It divides us in social boundaries, but somehow is our common thread, as well. To understand these linguistics, Eco states: “The task of semiotics is to isolate different systems of signification, each of them ruled by specific norms, and to demonstrate that there is signification and that there are norms” (Eco 145). Using these norms as a starting point of comparison can help us in decoding each other’s symbols and signs. Just as Eco also echoes in “Lumbar Thought”, a pair of jeans transformed his demeanor and he developed a new set of symbols embodied in his physical movement.

Stallybrass’ analyzes the grief in clothing of those who have passed away in how even when the human movement is gone, there is still something; there is something almost magical, moving around in the fabric. That is what is called the imprint. When speaking of the death of his friend Allon White, he states: “For Jen, the question was whether and how to reorder the house, what to do with Allon’s books and with all the ways in which he had occupied space” (Stallybrass 35). By his use of literary language, Stallybrass is emphasizing that the signs of remembrance, like Allon’s books, still existed around them; his signs stayed even though his physical body had left. Stallybrass talks of memories as the imprint of a person and the power in processing that memory comes from within in us.

When my grandmother, on my mother’s side, passed away, there was this spree and excitement for my aunts to gather as much of her personal items as quickly as possible. The stampede to her home in Waterbury empathized a true fetishism in my grandmother’s belongings. The pearls she bought after my grandfather returned from war, the sapphire rings she collected, and the many cashmere sweaters she wore during the seasons seemed to be a commodity, as Karl Marx would see it; these items were so valued for their price that the memory of my grandmother faded. My mother, however, started fidgeting with the fake diamond pins she seemed to snag out of the items that were taken. They were my grandmother’s, and when I asked my mother why she wore them, she said she could feel my grandmother’s presence with her. Here is where I saw my mother’s power in imprinting my grandmother’s memory. She didn’t need the most expensive item to feel her own mother’s love; she needed something that reminded that she had strength from the ones who passed away in her life. My mother sat in a hospital for two months watching my grandmother withering away while my aunts sat in their homes, far away from the horror, and all they wanted was stuff. To them, all they saw was stuff, so it remained stuff.

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The true reason why clothing becomes a memory is by the senses of the body, and the magic that makes you feel somehow secure knowing that that pin sat on someone else’s shoulders for a long time. It’s as if the pins, gathered on my mother, would be like having little imaginary former lives of memory helping her make decisions in the present. The magic of those moments, and the symbolism of some cheap Macy’s pin, as I believe Stallybrass would agree, gathered meaning because some wore it.

Clothing is different because it touches the body; it has direct connection to that person’s movement, the environments they both enter, and the way they live on that person and in return, the clothing becomes the life. It can be frightening in experience and this terror is captured by Vladimir Nabokov as he states: “Her dresses now wear their own selves, her books leaf through their own pages. We suffocate in the tightening circle of those monsters that are misplaced and misshapen because she is not there to tend them” (Stallybrass 40). And maybe that’s the point: we need to keep this cyclic motion going of tending to these items so that they continue their own path of life along ours. The personification of cloth is what keeps the mystery, but also creates a sense of fear that the person who has passed, may still be around in that object. Clothing truly haunts us and that adds comfort, along with some mystery or terror, to how clothing is truly grieved. It becomes so grieved, we started to follow an understood and organized interpretation of what to wear to mourn those we have lost; we have created fashion, alongside the fashion that lives from those who have died.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art had an exhibition, reviewed by Glenda Tomi, called “Death Becomes Her: A Century of Mourning Attire” which examined the Victorian Era. “Her”, which personified the actual attire that the person mourning was wearing, became a part of the textile industry after the Industrial Revolution; mourning attire, thus, became a staple in the fashion industry (Toma). Between 1815 and 1915, death in fashion has certain symbols and codes as an homage to Eco statements about coding, as Toma states:

“And while black does have a muting effect, it cannot hide careful attention to cut, detail and trim. One outfit, dated 1861 and displayed from behind, has thin threads of gray woven throughout the skirt, as if someone started sketching gardenias in charcoal. Lace is delicately draped around the shoulders, just sheer enough that the dress’s black beads still manage to peek through” (Toma).

The question for present day mourning, amongst Stallybrass’ and Toma’s analysis of death, comes back to my grandmother’s handkerchiefs; for that, the personal narrative from my mother explains the history behind why the magic of what could be a forgotten, a 1900’s folded embroidered piece of cloth, becomes meaningful in remembrance and memory. My grandmother had her own fashion inspiration from Jackie Kennedy and Chanel, which why she loved carrying scarves or handkerchiefs. From my mother, also named Joan, there is further insight into my grandmother’s, who we called “Mama Joan” history of style:

“Mama Joan grew up in the depression, then married Papa Frank who was very frugal, so money was always tight. On top of that, Mama Joan went to Catholic school and always wore a uniform. And her mother was English, and wore very simple clothes. I always thought her Mom looked like a nun. So, what’s a girl to do? I think Mama Joan used scarves as her fashion statement piece. They were economical and she could change up her basic clothes to look new and different. She always wore short scarves around her neck. She didn’t have money for jewelry, so scarves were her accessory”.

That culture of wearing scarves and handkerchiefs during the 1940’s and 1950’s spread to my mother, who also accessories with scarves based on the influence of my grandmother. In a way, other than actual funeral attire we all wear, those scarves my mother creates a new definition of “mourning clothing”. My mother is what Stallybrass would call giving “tribute” to my grandmother. Stallybrass believes in obligations to cloth in mourning as he states: “The particular power of cloth…is closely associated with two almost contradictory aspects of its materiality; it’s ability to permeated and transformed be maker and wearer alike; its ability to endure over time…cloth is a kind of memory” (Stallybrass 38). More so, cloth is more human than we ever imagine it to be, and can endure its own death in a way. Cloth endures time just as we do as humans, it just dies differently; he decays differently. The one common ideal is that cloth and humans share is having a soul, which is how cloth is personified. Cloth only lasts longer than the human body, but it wears marks of time and it captures the memory of the human life.

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Ironically, the future of our culture lies in the death of the past, in terms of cloth; we mourn clothes left behind while create an industry based on the death of others to fuel another capitalist perspective of the industry. Eco and Stallybrass understand the physicality and materiality of an object whether it’s in how we move as people when wearing clothes, or the physical texture of clothing that imprints a person even after the person is gone. This is seen in the visual collections of photographs of the left behind, but still very alive, handkerchiefs of my grandmother. Beyond capitalism and fetishism, which do exist in the fashion industry, symbolic meaning of clothing is a long last influence, and is preserved by us as people, after the death of the person. Whether alive or not, the codes of a person are embedded in their clothing, truly shaped into it, so that their presence cannot leave. The materiality of clothing by sharing and reusing clothes, shows that clothing is also a sign of a long journey, collecting memories as if they item can be personified forever. The magic then, is accepting the movement of the present and how movement continues in the past to provide a real mystery to the definitions of life and death in fashion.

Work Cited

Eco, Umberto. “A Theory of Semiotics.” Social Life as a Sign System (1976): 143-47. Web. 23 Sept. 2016.

Eco, Umberto. “Lumbar Thought.” Umberto Eco (n.d.): 315-17. Web. 3 Sept. 2016.

Rabalais, Kevin. “Create Dangerously: Albert Camus and His Quest for Meaning.” The Australian Arts. The Australian, 2 Nov. 2013. Web. 23 Nov. 2016.

Stallybrass, Peter. “Worn World.” Clothes, Mourning, and the Life of Things (n.d.): 35-50. Web. 23 Sept. 2016.

Toma, Glenda. “At The Met, ‘Death Becomes’ A History Lesson Of The Fashion Variety.” Forbes.Com (2014): 1. Business Source Complete. Web. 23 Nov. 2016.

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