Dressing the dead: Q&A with fashion designer Pia Interlandi

Meet Pia Interlandi, a fashion designer from Melbourne whose work involves creating biodegradable ‘Garments for the Grave’. She began experimenting with dissolvable fabrics as a method of exploring life’s transience. With the view of clothing as a second skin, Pia investigates the role that fashion can play at the end of life by asking these three questions; 

What will you wear?
Who will dress you?
What will you leave behind?

Her mix and match burial garments are designed to return to the earth along with the wearer and have recently been exhibited at the London Science Museum, London Print Studios and Graveland Exhibition.

Pia is currently working in the UK as a resident dresser with Clandon Wood Natural Burial Ground

Explain what it is like to dress a dead body?

What was the inspiration behind the creation of biodegradable garments?

I was doing some artistic experimental fashion and looking at things like dissolvable garments that dissolve when you sweat and I realised that it was really about transformation and clothing as this second skin that we wear.

The wrapping of the body – picture by Devika Bilimoria

The wrapping of the body – picture Devika Bilimoria

Then my Italian grandfather died, my Nonno, I went to dress him for his burial and my grandmother, his wife of 60 years, had chosen his best suit. There was a lot of awkwardness in dressing him, we had to move him around a lot and you know he was dead so it was confronting,  but for me it was really about his shoes. While doing up these leather shoes I thought, I’m going to be honest here he’s not going to be walking anywhere.

After I dressed him I went back and I became really interested in the biodegradability of fibres and the dead body. During the funeral you need to wrap them and care for them in something that’s ceremonious or tells you a story about their life and their beliefs and so I started creating garments for that.

How did you begin the process to create these garments?

I did a lot of forensic experiments in terms of how fibres decompose in a burial scenario. In Australia we have an anatomy act, which basically says you can’t use human beings for experimental research, so we used pigs. That’s a big body of my research, ‘The Pig Project’, every 50 days for a year we would go and recover these three pigs that I had dressed and washed and named and just look at how the fibres were reacting to that kind of nutrient bag of chemical exchanges happening under ground.

What are these garments made out of?

A full shroud – picture by Devika Bilimoria

A full shroud – picture Devika Bilimoria

I have a prototype model, which is the garment I start with and the garment I have spent a couple of years developing. I use natural fibres so primarily hemp, which is a very fast growing plant, it decomposes quite quickly but not so quickly that it falls apart. The idea is that you completely wrap the body and then it becomes almost a wrapping that provides a psychological barrier for the living, but then once in the earth it will break away and unwrap the body for the nutrients.

What can a client expect, do they have a lot of choice?

A lot of the fibres I design with now have intent in terms of how long they should last with the body. A lot of people who are choosing natural burial are choosing for nothing to remain, but there are some people who want something to last with the skeleton. That could be an embroidered name – in a synthetic like polyester or nylon, so that as the body is released the message from the garment also emerges and can be laid with the skeleton.

Do you feel it is important for the bereaved to dress their loved ones?

Absolutely, one of the things that has become really important in my research about death is how disconnected we are from the actual dead body. When I dressed my grandfather, it was him but it was just his shell, the energy or the soul or the spirit has just gone somewhere else, so you can let that body go because you understand that they are not in there anymore.

I think that’s a really important part of the bereavement process that we actually miss in this day and age and within this particular culture. I’m basically saying to people this is an important part; this is what is going into the ground with this person, this is the last thing they are ever going to wear.

Do you feel you have become desensitised to the dead?

Every dead body is different, every person is individual and so there are some things that I still go wow, that cancer really ravaged that person, or I expected a lot more violence to have happened to that body.

That doesn’t mean that I’m comfortable with death, it doesn’t mean that I’m not going to be sad when my parents or my friends die. Death is always tragic and sad. There are things that I have acclimatised to and because I can deal calmly in the face of the death of others, I can take a family through that process in a calm and comforting manner and make that process a lot easier for them.

Have you thought about whether you would like to be dressed in end of life garments?

When I do go… if I’m at home I’d like my family to come and dress me and have a natural burial. Whether that’s in one of my garments – well it is probably going to be in one of my garments – I might change what shape it is or what colour it is or I might start doing a patchwork of fabrics that are meaningful to me. I’m not quite sure yet, but  just natural fibres thank you.

Find out more about Pia’s work in a documentary coming soon – check out the promo
Website: http://www.piainterlandi.com/