Showcasing a collection of ensembles to clothe the dead, the gorgeous and unreal opening ceremony for Mark Mitchell: Burial happened at the Frye Art Museum on a recent dark, cold, hard-raining Friday. Cellist Lori Goldston filled the gallery with a wandering, haunted song, while nine muse-models were strewn like jewels across the floor, lying prone on mirror panels. Among the bodies, the visitors stood transfixed—some cried, some whispered thoughtfully, and others just drifted, as if passing through a sad dream.
Each of Mitchell's works blends impeccable technique with masterful design, and he and his team used natural materials to ensure full biodegradation during "life's ultimate appointment," as he describes it, whatever one's preference: cremation, land burial, burial at sea. Along with goatskin and wool, the garments contain every variety of silk you could imagine—taffeta, crepe, habutai, chiffon, organza, gauze, bouclé—all of it kept impossibly white and draped into flowing pools, or densely wadded into crimping ruffles resembling barnacles, or cut in petal shapes, then carefully steamed and molded and arranged into bouquets.
Mitchell's collection upends funereal protocol, and we need it to. Today's standard looks are both bland and unnerving, what with the bouffant hair, the heavily rouged cheeks, the traditional Sunday best suits. (Commercial burial jackets have the same appearance, but the center back seam is left open, so it can be more efficiently eased on, and the sleeves are cut longer, so cuffs rest properly at wrists when arms are folded into casket position.) Women's burial fashions tend toward prim nightgown-inspired silhouettes with synthetic pastel fabrics and piles of cheap lace, bringing a culty dollhouse-bordello look.
In contrast, Burial honors the profound intimacy of death. Mitchell embellished every outfit with tons of laborious hand-stitched finishes, and there's always one secret detail. Perhaps it's a hidden pocket for a cherished trinket, or a message embroidered into the lining. Only the muse-model will ever know. Traits like these recall the sacred qualities of burial wear from earlier eras and different regions, when the dead wore bridal gowns, or black silk robes, or were left naked and tucked into an envelope of animal hides, or when their ears were dusted with gold powder, or lips with ashes, or mouths were stowed with pearls. (For more information about Mark Mitchell: Burial, visit fryemuseum.org.)
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