The hot exhibit in Seattle right now is Burial by Mark Mitchell at the Frye Museum — and it’s unlike anything I’ve seen before. Mitchell is a local legend who moved from the theater world and costuming to fashion design, specializing in wedding gowns and outrageously imaginative costumes worn by burlesque performers — and, most recently, burial clothing and accessories.
“Burial” presents a collection of these garments for the Other Side: stunningly beautiful ensembles of hand-stitched ornaments, radiant silk organza, ruffles, keepsake pockets, burial shoes and mitts lovingly adorned with knitted ribbons — all cocooning their subjects in their solemn, dignified poses. The closer you look, the more of these details become apparent, and, at the same time, mysterious and opaque. We are told that the vestments have been individualized on the inside, private messages kept secret by the deceased.
For opening night at the Frye, live models displayed the collection as they lay supine on mirrored glass panels, playing the role of corpses lovingly prepared for burial: “Buried in the earth, incinerated, or at the bottom of the sea, these vestments are intended to degrade readily, leaving nothing behind,” as Mitchell describes his creations. Each of the individual costumes was “inspired by, and created for, the nine muse/models” who presented them. This was the only chance to see them in this “living dead” context: after opening night, until the exhibit closes at the end of October, mannequins were installed to display the “Burial” ensembles.
Talk about aura: as the continually flowing crowd of spectators milled about, the models, also outfitted in waxy, corpse-like make-up, couldn’t help registering their awareness of these interlopers, no matter how hard they tried to keep eyelids from trembling. The tension was part of the experience — as was the setting, the restaged, busy salon-style display of paintings from the collection of the museum’s founders, Charles and Emma Frye. Cellist Lori Goldston, wearing another gown specially designed by Mitchell, improvised (?) a mournful meditation.
Mitchell has been keeping a blog on the ongoing evolution of this project. Why devote so much attention to dressing those about to be buried? “People plan for months or years to devise the ideal wedding costume but rarely think of what they’ll wear for life’s ultimate appointment. I use traditional fine-sewing techniques to create garments that honor the deceased with a thoughtful integrity of artistry, design, materials, and workmanship that offer an alternative to the tradition of ‘Sunday Best’ or the uninspired offerings available at this time in the funeral industry.”