Curious Trends

01/01/2011

Grief and the fashion for mourning


The press abounds with stories of ageing, loss and bereavement. Misery memoirs and accounts of death, divorce and social isolation fill the best seller lists. At the same time, we’re mourning the loss of things past – simpler times, traditional family values and a more natural way of life.

Unless we have been through the same thing, can we really understand what grief is like? Why then our current obsession? And what precisely are we mourning the loss of? Could it be that we are all at some stage of bereavement?

Perhaps the trauma of change means that we’re constantly having to readjust our expectations and responses to our circumstances. In recent years, social structures, technology, communications and the moral fabric of society have been changing fast - rapid globalization, social flux and economic constraints are making us consider what’s really dear to us: Things like our home life, our family and friends, rather than our logo laden luggage...


Heart rending stories of grief have become commonplace like the Threads of Feeling exhibition of 18th century fabric swatches at London’s Foundling Museum that tell stories of mothers being parted from their babies.

In an interview with Tracey Emin for the Sunday Telegraph’s Stella Magazine, Helena de Bertodano feels that Tracey ‘is in a constant state of mourning. Her studio is littered with small chairs which she says ‘belong to all my dead children’, referring as much to the dreamed of babies as to her abortions.’

A whole raft of enterprising businesses have been set up to cater for the growing demand to grieve. Priscilla Etienne, for instance, specializes in funeral photography that aims to de-mystify death.

Recently published books include Natascha McElhone’s After You, recounting her grief following her husband, surgeon Martin Kelly’s death from a heart attack in 2008 whilst she was away working in Los Angeles. At the time of his death, the couple had two children, with a third on the way. McElhone’s feelings towards her children and emotional response surrounding the birth of her son were a natural part of her grieving process.

Her assessment, “Grief, in all its agony, has these moments of luminosity. I realized today I’ve often been on a high from grief. It’s like falling in love – an absurd notion, but the feelings nestle side by side: my grief for you is also my love for you fighting its last few breaths.”

Following a bereavement, or a divorce, we can try to find solace through shopping, eating or running away to the other side of the world – like Elizabeth Gilbert in the book Eat, Pray, Love, but ultimately it’s the people in our lives who really matter. When someone dies or leaves us, the world changes forever for those who are left behind. Probably the worst pain we can encounter in life is being separated from those we love.

Gilbert’s book combines modern day materialism with age old truths and philosophies in a juxtaposition that sometimes doesn’t sit well. “There are only two questions that human beings have ever fought over, all through history. How much do you love me? And Who’s in charge? Everything else is somehow manageable. But these two questions of love and control undo us all, trip us up and cause war, grief and suffering.”

However, the fundamental truth emerging from her book is that, “As far as we know, we are the only species on the planet who have been given the gift – or curse, perhaps – of awareness of our own mortality. Everything here eventually dies; we’re just the lucky ones who get to think about this fact every day.”

Later on in the book she reflects on an old Buddhist teaching, “The world is afflicted with death and decay, therefore the wise do not grieve, knowing the terms of the world.”

Our approach to mourning and bereavement has recently developed two curious new facets:

Firstly, our grief now extends beyond people to memories of the past. We have taken to mourning the loss of objects, styles, ideas and methods from the past. The young now look to the past not just as a source of inspiration, but also with a sense of nostalgia based on things they have seen on television or the internet and can only imagine, rather than actual experience. The result is a new approach to creativity and we’re seeing more designer-makers, independent crafts people, cottage industries and social entrepreneurs. We’re also beginning to show much more appreciation for the obsolete accessories of bygone eras, at least in terms of their design, beauty and provenance.

Secondly, we’ve begun to celebrate the lives of those who have died in order to remember them and as part of the grieving process. Last year even saw the launch of a new publication called Eulogy Magazine – a celebration of life and death, to help people come to terms and deal with the practicalities of losing someone, and to familiarize ourselves with the inevitability of death.

In Kristine Carlson’s book, Heartbroken Open: A Memoir through Loss to Self Discovery, she finds that “The great beauty of grief is its clarity. It has a way of thrusting you into the present.” When her husband and author of best-selling self-help books Richard died at the age of 45, she immersed herself in grief completely, before eventually gravitating towards the joy he had actively sought.

Grief can be experienced by people of all ages. A survey by Jigsaw4u, a charity offering grief support to children, found that 85% of young offenders had experienced loss. And ways of remembering the dead are becoming both more public and more personal.

Memory boxes include items such as locks of hair, the deceased’s favourite after shave, scraps of fabric – even a pair of underpants. Old clothes are made up into new garments. Sensory and olfactory reminders are often key to keeping the dead person’s memory alive. In addition to journals and memoirs of bereavement, works of art are sometimes created to commemorate a life, or even as an expression of grief.

Susie MacMurray’s beautifully constructed Widow dress at the GSK Contemporary exhibiton, Aware – Art Fashion Identity exhibition (above) appears both threatening and seductive – as it is made entirely of dressmakers’ pins. Widowed at the age of 47, the dress reflects MacMurray’s personal pain and grief, as well as the role of the traditionally dependent woman, devoted to tasks such as sewing and dressmaking.

Recording positive recollections of a dead person, and lighting candles in their memory on memorial websites have, for some, become equivalent to tending a grave. Other novel approaches to grief and loss include negotiating a labyrinth.

But at the end of the day, our feelings are all pretty much the same, as touchingly expressed by film director, the late Yasmin Ahmad, in this advertising video:
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