‘[Judy] Blame was a brilliant jeweller of the punk era,’ writes Derek McCormack in the titular essay of his collected fashion writings, Judy Blame’s Obituary, out this month from Pilot Press. ‘Some of his jewellery was shit,’ he adds. This is not a put-down, but McCormack’s literal description of a Blame piece that he finds particularly enticing: chains around the neck holding fake, plastic shits of various hues. It is fairly typical subject matter for McCormack’s journalism, which, like his fiction – including Castle Faggot (2020) and The Well-Dressed Wound (2015) – is often scatological, pornographic, violent and comic.
The 30 essays in Judy Blame’s Obituary feature artists, designers and writers. There are interviews with David Altmejd, Nicolas Ghesquière and Edmund White alongside reviews of exhibitions such as ‘Thierry Mugler: Couturissime’ at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 2019 and ‘Kathy Forest’, Dodie Bellamy’s show of Kathy Acker’s clothes at White Columns, New York in 2007. All of the essays are rooted in McCormack’s personal obsessions: fashion, death, ‘fagginess’, art and plenty of horror – veering from M.R. James’s ghost stories, through fairground funhouses and kitsch, Dracula-themed breakfast cereals to his personal experiences of homophobic abuse and the damage wrought on his body by cancer. Most of the texts first appeared in the fashion column McCormack wrote for five years between 2007 and 2012 for Canada’s National Post, others in Artforum, The Believer and Werewolf Express. McCormack’s approach is not what you would usually encounter in fashion writing; these are neither commercial puff pieces nor academic studies of historical dress. Nevertheless, despite growing up in Ontario, far from the major international centres of design, he has always loved fashion, believing as a young gay kid that its culture was for him. His unique work illuminates some of fashion’s essential but rarely explored qualities. At the same time, the book is a kind of autobiography: ‘a life seen through a scrim, or a life as a scrim – my moiré mémoires’.
In McCormack’s novels, both salvation and terror come at the hands of fiendish couturiers, where a ghoulish Nudie Cohn or a devilish Martin Margiela conjure up clothes that variously infect and kill their wearers, albeit after illuminating those lives first. His journalism is less extreme but still gravitates towards darker corners: Vera West, dresser of Hollywood’s early horror movies, and her untimely death; or perfume’s ‘animalistic scents, the basest base notes’. Though not chronological, Judy Blame’s Obituary begins with McCormack’s youth in Peterborough, ‘a cruel place’ that he fled ‘before finishing high school’. Yet, he says, he couldn’t stop writing about it. Like many authors, he has frequent touchstones, but these might be hauntings: after the show-cum-funeral that Jean-Paul Gaultier stages for his final couture presentation in 2020, McCormack asks: ‘Do styles ever die, or do they come back undead and undeader?’
McCormack is able to take fashion’s familiar figures down unexpected avenues or bring seemingly disparate ideas into fashion’s sphere. For McCormack and those he speaks to, fashion is deeply magnetic: he suggests of Acker, ‘the most spectacularly clad writer [he]’d ever seen’, who ‘created herself at least partly through clothing’, that her garments would even be able to summon her ghost. The force of the attraction is carried through sentences that feel like declarations of love. In its incessant desire, self-invention and self-interrogation – as well as its queerness and interest in transgression – McCormack’s writing has echoes of New Narrative: Writers Who Love Too Much, as the title of Bellamy and Kevin Killian’s 2017 anthology on the movement labelled them. It is all consuming: ‘What does it mean to have a favourite designer?’ he asks. ‘For me, it meant total devotion: I longed to disappear into Margiela’s clothes, to turn into a whim of his – to be blanked by a blank.’
As a journalist or critic he asks questions of his subjects: from looking at what sequins are made of to considering whether ‘the universe [is] stretch velvet’. When Ghesquière describes fragrance as something ‘deeply organic that comes from the body and that’s used to make something else’, McCormack asks: ‘What, then, is a scab? A sort of sequin? A brooch of dried blood?’ He finds his own writing inadequate in relation to his subject’s designs. He feels an outsider: ‘[a] writer’s concern is stylish sentences, which can’t be worn to fashion shows, unfortunately. What does fashion care for words?’ Still, he tries, aiming for ‘sentences as shit necklaces’. McCormack calls his writing a ‘prank’ in ‘devotion to disgust’ and, like Blame’s shit necklace, he is sending fashion up while declaring his attachment to it: irreverence as reverence. Judy Blame’s Obituary is McCormack sharing his secret ingredients: the faecal base note; artful combinations of high and low; personal and universal; fake, material and spectral.
Though he turns to fashion, apt as it is for such transformation, it is not, he stresses, there to save you. McCormack’s evocation of ‘moiré mémoires’ seems less a reference to the liquid shine of that luxury fabric than to how it is made: soft fibres crushed under immense rollers, spat out the other side, indelibly marked. Such is the fate of those who love fashion. Meanwhile, the medium itself thrives: ‘death is a form of fashion’ he ends the book. ‘It’s the last word.’
Main image: Jean-Paul Gaultier’s final show, Paris, 2020. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Anne-Christine Poujoulat