Derek McCormack’s Judy Blame’s Obituary: Writings on Fashion and Death is a furious haberdashery of his own shining and ghostly obsessions. When writing about fashion, McCormack is writing about his life. Fashion is a glittering, inaccessible mirage like Kafka’s castle covered in rhinestones. Our exclusion from glamour is the push-pull of our own hearts beating. It feels like a magic spell. McCormack writes about projecting his dreams and fantasies onto the frozen buildings of his Ontarian home city of Peterborough. After discovering the photography of Belgian fashion designer Martin Margiela, which to him resembled ectoplasm, he wondered if Margiela, “could transform me into something and someone I was not?” If fashion is like an afterlife, maybe we could strike a deadly Faustian bargain, even with a Yohji Yamamoto shirt, and transmogrify ourselves into a living sheet of glass. If we wear enough jewels, we might finally begin to freeze.
When McCormack is writing about clothes, he is also writing about his body, his diagnosis of appendix cancer. Even his own bowels become a catwalk. Poo parades in a variety of outfits as the audience watches on, mute and unreachable as mannequins. He details in the titular essay about a necklace of turds made by punk iconoclast Judy Blame, in many shapes and sizes. A glorious spectrum of shit reborn as powerful amulets. The book features an interview with Valerie Steele who speaks about fashion as gothic phantasmagoria, an uncanny recurrence. There is also a discussion of the exhibition of Kathy Acker’s clothes, following her death, organized by Dodie Bellamy. The intangible sight of a piece of clothing hanging on a washing line, more real than bodies. There is loss and pathos throughout Judy Blame’s Obituary. McCormack interviews a Canadian maker of sequins, Herbert Lieberman, whose produce once lined the outfits of figure skaters, baton twirlers: their shining dreams. Liberman explains that because these are now made with vinyl plastic, “sequins today aren’t as brilliant.” In a beautiful line, McCormack concludes, “The sun is a sequin.”
We look at the phantasmagorical colors of fashion and want to be possessed by the terrible power of candy. McCormack returns to characters from cereal commercials watched as a child on Canadian television, the werewolf Fruit Brute and a ghoul called Boo Berry. Reading McCormack feels like falling into a washing machine of ghastly, saturated shades: piss-yellow, witch-green. Colors have their own secrets too. Inspired by Siouxsie Sioux, goths wear black and stay tight-lipped. Black is the most handsome color. I remember seeing Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising for the first time, how the light danced across the muscular bodies of horny biker boys, an oiled torso stretched out like a Satanic verse. And the scene in Jacques Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating, where Céline performs an act in a Montmartre nightclub dressed in a magician’s cape. Fashion invites us into the spotlight of delusion: glamour that feels close to suicide, the way she looked up there. Lost in his endless mirrored dioramas, McCormack makes jokes like a fugue-ridden showman.
McCormack invokes the occult power of fashion. We spray ourselves in false perfumes to become illusory, often demonic. These clouds of heady top notes dissolve quickly like a cruel game, leaving us alone and abandoned. Death blows up balloons at an exquisite birthday party just to pop them all. Spoiled fashion always gets what it wants. Fashion learned a lot from its older sister Death. It watched Death undress a corpse, snatch at tumorous lungs like a toddler grabbing at Venetian glass because Death didn’t understand its own hunger, only knew that it liked the shine. Fashion saw how to use and discard a human soul. The crimson lipstick in Black Narcissus, the sunglasses of Laura Palmer worn by her best friend Donna Hayward. Its whims are capricious and fleeting. We are caught in the snowstorm of its appetite and spooky charms. Even embroidery can be a form of revenge. McCormack’s novel, The Well-Dressed Wound, set during the American Civil War, reads like George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo after huffing too much amyl nitrate. We hold hands on a table and a howling pink Liberace appears. McCormack’s writing, like fashion, feels like a séance. It’s all fake.
Like a haunted house, fashion likes to play tricks. McCormack sews a thread of tarantula silk through the corridors of a boy brothel Marcel Proust frequented, from a shriveled, dolled up Baudelaire to the mirrored coffin of Thierry Mugler. McCormack writes, “Mugler affirms that fashion is the fabric of fagginess and that fagginess is the faggiest of all perversions.” He argues that Oscar Wilde was the prerequisite for Count Dracula and hammers the poet’s shit-smeared dildo through the dusty heart of an old Transylvanian queen. Decked in lycanthropic brooches, we conjure our own pollution. Dracula passes syphilis to the mouth of Jonathan Harker like a Cartier necklace. Like a cheap magic trick, fashion lulls its spectators to dress for an impossibility, drinking sapphire cocktails in the sacred radii of all the costumes we meet. Faggots like to hold cigarettes and look into mirrors so they can see themselves vanish into smoke. Our dreams might perish but fashion won’t. It persists and haunts. We are simply the shadows fashion repeats upon. Just lie down and we’ll take care of the rest. It’s always Halloween here. We die to get dressed up.
Judy Blame’s Obituary: Writings on Fashion and Death, by Derek McCormack. Pilot Press. 256 pages. £12.00, paper.
Matthew Kinlin lives and writes in Glasgow. His two novels Teenage Hallucination (Orbis Tertius Press) and Curse Red, Curse Blue, Curse Green (Sweat Drenched Press) were released in 2021. He tweets @garbagemagician.