Dress up for the Dead

Thoughts from our expert on design, gadgets and joie de vivre

Framing the concept of life and death in a fashion editorial took me on a journey around the world and back. From the deepest forests of Africa to the deserts of Australia, I was on a quest for the link that connects death, life and beauty.

Unsurprisingly, life and death are topics people around the world tend to dress up for. But face painting is perhaps the most widespread tradition, especially to honor the dead. My first stop was the Mexican Day of the Dead. On Día de los Muertos, perhaps the most famous Mexican holiday, the symbol of the skull is a reminder to celebrate the life of the departed as opposed to mourning their death. Decorating one’s face in various patterns and shapes has been a part of the cultural make up of many societies since records have been kept. The reasons vary: from remembering the dead, to preparing for war and celebrating life, fertility and beauty.

One unique example is the Wodaabe tribe in Niger. At their annual courtship festival, Gerewol, the tribe’s young men wear refined make-up and adorn themselves in feathers and jewelry to impress the women, who choose their partners according to who they deem most handsome. The self-proclaimed “most beautiful people in the world” in fact hold the oldest beauty pageant known to man. This celebration of vanity and pomp stood in stark contrast to other, more somber festivals. It got me thinking about the ways in which we embellish our faces today.

In the 20th century, the origins of face painting were all but forgotten and a practice called “face enameling” was the height of fashion. The procedure was highly popular among the rich and aimed to make the face paler – an indication of being upper class and having less exposure to the sun. This ideal is sought after in China to this day.

It wasn’t until Hollywood began influencing the public in the 1920s that cosmetics became a worldwide phenomenon – with the legendary Helena Rubinstein and her sworn enemy Elizabeth Arden at the forefront.

These  women shared the make-up spotlight with Eugene Rimmel – a man considered by many to be a trailblazer of the beauty and healthcare industries. His invention of the first non-toxic mascara became so popular that his name “Rimmel” still stands for the word “mascara” in my native tongue, Farsi.

And thus my journey ended: with a distant memory of my mother looking for her “Rimmel” in Tehran, insights of the American suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who wore red lipstick at the turn of the 20th century as a symbol of freedom from oppression, and images of the Chimbu tribe in Papua New Guinea, who spend every day of their lives painted in the semblance of a skeleton.

Ali Rabbani
Creative director and stylist for film and print. He studied fashion in Vienna and has worked all over the world in styling, set and food design, as well as art direction for advertising and fashion shoots, videos and shows. See his work @iamrabbani

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