Writing & Talking about the History of Fashion

Dress to die for

There is a close connection between art and clothing, as scholars like Anne Hollander have shown.[i] Both are forms of creation that provide people with the potential to alter perceptions of themselves and their environments. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, it was cheaper to pose for a portrait and dress in the fine fabrics kept within an artist’s studio than commission a new set of garments.[ii] A portrait would generally last longer than clothes, too. But as much as paintings can project an image, they also reflect one. The clothes, fabrics and ornamentation in which people chose to be immortalised reveals much about the practicalities and principles of former periods. This is particularly the case with one of my favourite artists, the Sixteenth-century Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel. In little more than a decade Bruegel created over forty-five paintings. In the early 1560s his work borrowed heavily from another Flemish artist, Hieronymus Bosch, and tended towards the surreal, but throughout his painting Bruegel was keen to depict the life of the Netherlands as accurately as possible, from daily vignettes to clothing. This realism lends his paintings, which often feature over one hundred people, a deep sense of humour and pathos. The reality and posthumous reach of Bruegel’s work also stems from the fact that he concentrated on contemporary social concerns, issues that are perhaps as pressing today as they were six hundred years ago.

Triumph of Death

Pieter Bruegel’s The Triumph of Death, possibly my favourite painting, focuses on a topic that fascinates and frightens people in equal measure: death. The large oil painting, recently re-dated to c.1566-67, depicts a smouldering wasteland where frightened men, women and children try in vain to restrain a relentless troop of murdering skeletons.[iii] The painting is violent and packs a visceral punch. In the foreground, a paralysed king is cradled by a skeleton holding an hourglass, indicating that the ruler’s time is nearly up. Nearby, a starving dog gnaws at the neck of a baby, who lies in its dead mother’s arms. Just beyond, a group of skeletons work industriously to drown several men in a blackened pool. In the background, two ships are sinking, two men are being hanged, one man is about to be beheaded and another is fleeing from two dogs and a skeleton clutching a spear. Sinister stuff.

The Triumph of Death is beguiling because whilst it conveys the malaise caused by political and religious upheavals in the sixteenth-century Netherlands, the complex and intricate painting, which is depicted in a palette of warm browns and soft greys – hues that are frequently in vogue for Winter fashion collections and interior decoration – draws the viewer in. The painting thereby has much the same effect as a siren from an emergency vehicle: it compels us to gaze and explore, even though we know we probably shouldn’t because what we will find can only cause distress. The allure of The Triumph of Death is also due to the fact that Bruegel depicts the customs, pastimes and clothing of the Netherlands with painstaking accuracy: a cross section of social hierarchy is depicted in the painting, from the king, to a richly arrayed nobleman and noblewoman to a cardinal and jester. Musical instruments and scores and a backgammon board and playing cards are also shown. It is curious, then, why death in this painting is associated with the colour white: several of the skeletons are draped in white toga-like garments and white coffin lids, painted with crosses, serve as shields for the advancing skeleton army.[iv] Black, the colour usually associated with dress in death, is conspicuously absent from the painting.

The Death of Kings

The dress associated with death differs across time, cultures and faiths.[v] In Sikhism, women tend to wear white when mourning. Elderly male Hindus are dressed in white for their funerals; married women, by contrast, are usually clothed in brighter shades of red or pink. In the West, black has tended to be the dominant colour in funerary dress since the Roman period, although because of the pagan associations early Christians were admonished for wearing black in mourning.[vi] An modern online guide to funeral etiquette recommends black dress and stresses the need for extreme sartorial conservatism, so as to give due respect to the deceased.[vii] If the advice offered is strictly followed, the congregants at funerals would be indistinct and virtually amorphous. This is black at its most sombre and disturbing.

The reason for the discomfitPhilip the Goodure about black is historic and specific. Black clothing was worn by the ducal house of Burgundy and by their Habsburg relatives in Spain, most notably Charles V and Philip II. The black worn by King Philip, a monarch who presided over the Spanish Inquisition and who launched the ill-fated Spanish Armada against Elizabeth I’s England, came to represent his suspicious character, religious asceticism and political intolerance.[viii] But these negative associations did not exist when one of Philip’s ancestors, Duke Philip III (the Good) of Burgundy, first wore black. Duke Philip donned black to mourn the loss of his father, John the Fearless, who had been murdered by the French in 1419. The decision to adopt monotone garb was a political statement more than an emotional one, for it was a subtle way of defying the Duke’s overlord and signalling that John’s death would not be forgotten or left unpunished.[ix] A sartorial statement had to suffice until the young duke (he was twenty-two years old) was in a stronger position to take his revenge. The opulence and fame of the fifteenth-century Burgundian court ensured that Philip’s sartorial statement was adopted in other princely courts by devotees of the latest vogues. The excitement caused by the Burgundian court’s black raiment indicates that dress associated with death has not always been associated with conservatism or foreboding, certainly not for the elite.

The household accounts of King Henry III of England, who died in 1272, reveal that the king was most likely buried in his coronation garments of 1220.[x] These were fashioned from red samite and ophreys. Samite was an expensive silk often woven with patterns. Ophreys were gold embroidered decoration. The description of this regalia elsewhere in the accounts abounds with superlatives (albeit in a formulaic manner). This unusual method of recording reveals how significant these items of clothing were considered to be:

…a large gold crown with the most beautiful gems, a large brooch with the most beautiful rubies, a large ring with a large [and] very beautiful ruby, a gold [and] regal sceptre, three gold rods, regal and long.[xi]

The king’s burial garments are probably those depicted on his bronze-gilt effigy in Westminster Abbey, the church he re-built to honour his predecessor and patron saint Edward the Confessor.

James Brown1

In some ways, things haven’t changed that much. When James Brown, the ‘godfather of soul’, died in 2006, his body was put on public display within a bronze-gilt coffin in his eponymous arena in Augusta. For each of the three days of public commemoration, Brown’s body was dressed in a different set of clothes.[xii] The funeral of the ‘king of pop’, Michael Jackson, two years later, was similarly elaborate and cost in the region of $650,000.[xiii] Like Brown – and Henry III – Jackson had a gold-plated bronze coffin. The coffin was closed, but dress still had a significant role in the funeral proceedings, as Jackson’s brothers all wore a sequined glove in tribute. The desire, or need, to have an elaborate funeral and manipulate all elements of one’s appearance in death – to ‘play to the crowd’ – is proportional to the legitimacy that public events confer on celebrities, be they politicians or entertainers. Dress at a funeral is particularly important because it is the final occasion for the deceased to make a lasting impression and the only opportunity they have to directly shape their posthumous legacy. Approximately 20,000 attendees and onlookers were present for Michael Jackson’s funeral, but closer to 2.5 billion people watched the proceedings on television.[xiv]

James Brown2

Personal Possessions

The commemoration of a person’s life is necessarily public, but the onset of death is also a time for personal reflection. Deceased royalty, rock stars and politicians may appear in their finest raiment for their funeral, but they have often made sartorial choices that reflect personal feelings about their life and beliefs. For example, England’s ‘evil’ King John, who died in 1216, had a typical royal funeral in every respect (as much as civil war and a French invasion would permit). He was buried with mock regalia in a splendid tomb topped with a jewel-encrusted effigy within Worcester Cathedral. Later inspection of the king’s body revealed that he had chosen to be buried wearing a skull-cap. It is not clear what motivated this unusual addition, although it has often been thought that John wished to atone for his impious actions as king: John was notorious for failing to fast on feast days and he was widely suspected of murdering his nephew, who had a (stronger?) claim to English crown.

Cadaver Tomb

In the medieval period, a more striking, and public way, of expressing contrition and humility at the time of one’s worldly exit was to be buried in a cadaver or ‘double-decker’ tomb, to borrow Erwin Panofsky’s term. Cadaver tombs consisted of two effigies placed on top of each other, rather like a bunk bed. The upper-most effigy depicted the deceased at the apex of their earthly success and showed them in their best clothes and jewellery. The effigy below depicted the deceased as a rotting corpse, which is reminiscent of the skeletons in Bruegel’s Triumph of Death. By commissioning one of these costly tombs, the deceased thereby acknowledged that glory is fleeting and that death awaits all. Cadaver tombs were particularly popular on the continent and several French kings, including Louis XII, Francis I and Henry II, are buried in tombs of this design.

Queen Victoria’s instruction that she was to be buried in her wedding dress and veil was unlikely motivated by feelings of religious guilt akin to her thirteenth-century predecessor, but her choice shows still further how personal decisions about dress in death have always assumed a great deal of importance for the deceased. Moreover, although black is a colour frequently associated with Victoria in her later life, it was not by any means the only colour of death, even during a period when the rigid structure of mourning dress was established, both in fact an romantic literature.

A Fashionable Death?

The cessation of rigid proscriptions for mourning attire means there is, in theory, scope for greater flexibility in death-related dress. For some, black is still the appropriate – and only – colour that should be considered, but there have been attempts to challenge this. In 2009, so the story goes, Leonor Scherrer, daughter of designer Jean-Louis Scherrer, realised that she had nothing to wear for the funeral of Yves-Saint Laurent. So, she resolved to launch her own brand of ready-to-wear funeral garments.[xv] Scherrer was interviewed for various fashion magazines and her concept was generally welcomed, but it does not appear that her couture line was launched.[xvi] Today her website refers to a funerary service and home, rather than a clothes line. The apparent failure of Scherrer’s enterprise may indicate a preference for sobriety and black at funerals, or more likely an ambivalence to change what has become established custom, but the amount of money and popular interest that is generated by the death of celebrities means that an alternative couture line will probably exist before too long, whether black or not.


[i] A. Hollander, Seeing Through Clothes (Berkeley, 1975).

[ii] V. Cumming, Understanding fashion history (London, 2004), 84-7.

[iii] L. Silver, Pieter Bruegel (New York, 2011), 296.

[iv] I do not think it likely that the colour is meant to represent Calvinism.

[v] Hollander, Seeing Through Clothes, 373-90.

[vi] B.L. Wild, ‘Funerals: post-1100’, Encyclopedia of Medieval Dress and Textiles of the British Isles c.450-1450, ed. G. Owen-Crocker, E. Coatsworth & M. Hayward (Brill, 2012), 220.

[vii] R. Bickerstaff-Glover, ‘What do I wear to a funeral?’. http://etiquette.about.com/od/Funeral/a/What-Do-I-Wear-To-A-Funeral.com. Accessed: 31-xij-2012.

[viii] J. Harvey, ‘From Black in Spain to Black in Shakespeare’, The Men’s Fashion Reader, ed. P. McNeil & V. Karaminas (New York, 2009),19-28.

[ix] D. Gaulme & F. Gaulme, Power & Style: A World History of Politics and Dress (Paris, 2012), 78-91.

[x] D.A. Carpenter, ‘The Burial of King Henry III, the Regalia and Royal Ideology’, idem, The Reign of Henry III (London, 1996), 427-62.

[xi] B.L. Wild, The Wardrobe Accounts of King Henry III of England, 1216-1272 (Loughborough, 2012), 250.

[xii] ‘Stars turn out for Brown funeral’. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/6219659.stm. Accessed: 31-xij-2012.

[xiii] www.confused.com/news-views/infographics/famous-funerals. Accessed: 1-i-2013.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] ‘Funeral Haute Couture’. http://lustrass.com/2010/12/01/funeral-haute-couture/. Accessed: 1-i-2013.

[xvi] S. Muncey, ‘Death in Fashion’. www.shopcurious.com/curious-trends/Death-in-fashion.aspx. Accessed: 1-i-2013.

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