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Essay: The Fashion Body as Memento Mori

by Christopher Breward on 20 July 2010

Historian Christopher Breward explores fashion's relationship with death.

Historian Christopher Breward explores fashion's relationship with death.

I’ve always understood fashion in relation to the body’s surfaces. There is an indexical history of this relationship that traces a shifting dance, between those features of the body that sculptors, painters, writers, photographers, designers and dandies have chosen to prioritise, and the material and temporal fall of fabric that draws attention to, conceals and reveals, the same animate spaces. Fashion moves over the body in a similar way to an explorer scanning a map, seeking out peaks and inclines, shortcuts and vistas, though the landscape itself is never fixed. The arc of the geographer’s compass, like the tailor’s shears, cuts through air to produce an approximation of terra firma. An even closer analogy might be drawn between pattern-cutter and surgeon: the dots and dashes of a jacket’s template standing in for Gray’s Anatomy.

At various times in the history of western dressing, this intimate coupling between cloth and skin has produced an extraordinary magnification of particular body parts, constituting an extreme fetishisation of flesh, creating points of intensity that mark fashion’s passage. The shaved forehead of a fifteenth-century Burgundian noblewoman; the swollen cod-piece of a sixteenth-century king; the perfumed nape of the courtesan’s neck at the fin de siècle; and the small hollow of the back in the early twenty-first century, marked out and made generic with tattoo ink. Some theorists, notably Adolf Loos, have singled out these phenomena as a form of barbarianism, evidence of fashion’s degenerate tendencies. That may be so, but they also provide a repertoire of signs infused with a savage beauty that is inescapably human.

Our late medieval ancestors understood the direct connection that exists between the artfully constructed textile carapace of fashion and the all-too transient materiality of the body beneath.

In considering the history of fashion as it exists in the costume galleries of museums, Elizabeth Wilson has observed how, removed from the bodies on which they once made sense, these garments point to a universal and morbid truth: 'For clothes are so much part of our living, moving selves that, frozen on display in the mausoleums of culture, they hint at something only half understood, sinister, threatening, the atrophy of the body, and the evanescence of life.' In the same vein, I've often thought it must be more than coincidental that the emergence of European fashion in its most spectacular modern form in the fourteenth century, coincided with a fascination for corporeal decay, expressed in countless tomb-effigies and 'dance-of-death' prints. Wilson’s reading of fashion as memento-mori exists in a long tradition and helps to explain a continuing fascination with the fleeting eroticism of the body’s extremities.

Our late medieval ancestors understood the direct connection that exists between the artfully constructed textile carapace of fashion and the all-too transient materiality of the body beneath. We may have lost the link in our contemporary avoidance of the inevitability of death, but the beautiful strength and vulnerability of the fashioned body exists as an eternal aide-mémoire.

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