Fashion is an act of self-expression, a reflection of life. But the dead have no fashion. They just wear clothes.
It is this disconnect between fashion and clothing, the living and the dead that designer Pia Interlandi examines in her Garments for the Grave. More than just an art project, Interlandi's work aims to clothe the dead in garments that preserve the dignity of the deceased and those who mourn them, without making a mockery of the fashions they wore in life.
Interlandi's work on Garments for the Dead started in 2009. Upon the death of her grandfather, Interlandi was tasked with dressing his corpse in a suit picked out by her grandmother. While doing so, Interlandi was struck by the haphazardness with which the clothing he would wear to the grave had been chosen.
"Momentous occasions of ritual and ceremony usually call for particular clothing, such as a wedding dress, which has been sewn with great care." Intelandi tells me. "Yet the suit chosen for my grandfather, and the last garment he would ever wear, was done without much thought." In fact, not only was it difficult for her to put on her grandfather, the suit didn't even fit thanks to her grandfather's long illness. Interlandi began wondering if there was a more suitable way to clothe the dead.
There are many ways in which an item of clothing worn in life is not suited for death. For one thing, clothing is made to be put on autonomously: a shirt that you can effortlessly shrug into and button up while you're alive can be incredibly difficult to dress a corpse with. "The body becomes stiffer in the joints and unexpectedly heavy," says Interland. "Because of this, dressing a dead body basically requires a new way of dressing someone, where you turn their garments upside down."
There is also the matter of materials. Fibers and fabrics are chosen for practical qualities like longevity and expense. In the Western world, this ends up meaning that a lot of what we bury our dead in is synthetic. These materials can outlast a corpse, and even worse, actually prevent a body from decomposing naturally. "Dress a corpse in nylon tights or stockings, and they will constrict around the waist and act as pressure tights around the legs," says Interlandi. "The result is that when deterioration sets in the bacteria can't easily get down the legs or around the torso, resulting in the legs mummifying while the upper body rots normally."
These are the considerations that have informed the design of Interlandi's designs. Her simple but dignified burial robes are made of all-natural fabrics such as calico, cotton, silk, or lace, and are designed so that a family member of funeral director can easily dress the deceased. First, the garment is placed in a casket, the body is laid on top of it, and the partially pinned garment is then flipped over the front of the corpse in just a few easy motions, with ties then being used to secure the garment. Best of all, they are affordable: On average, a simple garment costs around $80.
Although Interlandi provides one-size-fits-all garments to clients as part of her work with the Clandon Wood natural burial reserve in Surrey, she has also provided garments tailored to the needs of individuals, such as a burial garment sewn from the sheets that the deceased slept in along with their partner for many years. She has also made robes designed for specific faiths and cultures, as well as garments for people of all sizes and ages. "I have thankfully not made garments for babies or children yet, but there is a sad inevitability of working in this area that means I probably will have to one day," the artist says.
Perhaps there is something to all of this. Dressing someone in death in the same clothes they wore in life seems like a morbid mockery of both. You only die once; perhaps, like your wedding day, the occasion deserves an outfit of its own. You can see more of Interlandi's work at her official website by clicking here.