MEMENTO mori is literally a death sentence. It is from Latin (a dead language) and translates as: remember that you have to die.
“The animals always need to be fresh so it doesn’t smell and there’s really not much blood unless it’s a bird that’s flown into a window and has internal bleeding,” she remarks, casually, with an attitude that is as refreshing as it is jarring, “I actually find it quite meditative.”
Rather than making a mental note (reminder: 3pm appointment in Hell), the Romans coined the expression to signify something much more profound: a warning of death’s imminence and a looming reminder of our own, fragile mortality. It is an hourglass, a drop of blood, a nail in the coffin. Those objects of the sublime that consume the mind with thoughts of death and death alone. Yet as dead as the expression may be, it’s notion remains very much alive.
Enter Julia DeVille and her esoteric label, Disce Mori (learn to die). Combining a childhood fascination with death and a penchant for silversmithing and taxidermy, the Melbourne-based designer, has breathed new life into the momento mori philosophy and, well, stuffed it into the fashion world.
“I use death as a reminder of the significance of life,” she explains, “We will all leave our bodies at some stage so we must make the most of life, not just our own, but that of all living things.”
Disce Mori communicates this message through the momento mori of the fifteenth to eighteenth centuries, when the onset of the Bubonic Plague had meant that death had become very much a part of everyday life. Prior to this period, Death had been represented as an unnatural being, horned and cloven-footed – akin to the Devil himself.
However, after the sixteenth century, with the Plague still fresh in everyone’s minds, a preoccupation with death was actually considered fashionable and its form became much more human, in the skeletons, skulls and crossbones that would soon embellish the fingers and necks of many a Victorian woman.
A look around the British high street and in the much-coveted collections of the late Alexander McQueen and it appears that our thirst for the macabre is still going strong. But have these once awe-inspiring symbols now become little more thannew-age fads? “I think it’s a little bit sad,” agrees Julia, “only because the skull used to be such a powerful symbol. It is meant to remind the viewer of their own mortality. Now it is a pop icon without the impact it once had.”
So death has been overkilled? Julia continues, “In saying that, I find a real skull still carries the old symbolism – I have a few human skulls and they definitely make people stop and think about things on a deeper level.”
In fact, the process of creating Disce Mori’s line of dark yet decadent pieces is a far cry from the meaningless, mass-produced, straight-off-the-conveyor-belt designs that have filtered into the mainstream. With brooches made from stuffed kingfisher wings and rings and necklaces inspired by Victorian mourning jewellery (which feature traditional materials such as human hair and jet), it’s a collection that’s arguably gruesome, yet unquestionably beautiful.
Death is not disgusting or fearsome in the world of Miss DeVille, who is ironically the antithesis to Cruella. She only uses animals that have died from natural causes in her taxidermy and is a strict vegetarian. "I have a lot of people that have read about me and if they find something they call me up," she says of her sources, "I also have a few farmer contacts that donate still-borns to me."
But for an active animal rights campaigner, stuffing dead animals must be hard to stomach? “The animals always need to be fresh so it doesn’t smell and there’s really not much blood unless it’s a bird that’s flown into a window and has internal bleeding,” she remarks, casually, with an attitude that is as refreshing as it is jarring, “I actually find it quite meditative.”
Remaining a faithful advocate of memento mori and its origins, she reiterates that she considers her art to be a celebration of life. So much so that she has donated her body to Germany's renowned Institute for Plastination. After her death, it will be dissected, filled with polymer and preserved for exhibition.
And what of the future for a designer so inspired by the past? “I want to slow things down and focus on making my artworks and one-off pieces, be around my family, grow our own veggies and keep pet goats and chickens.”
Julia deVille's pieces are available in Coco de Mer in London. See her website for more details.
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