Fashion, Victim, Style Icon

by Juan Camilo Velasquez

Juan Camilo Velasquez is a Colombian/kinda Canadian writer based in Montréal. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Film-Philosophy, carte blanche, Commo Magazine, and Cultural Politics among others.

Judy Blame’s Obituary: Writings on Fashion and Death
Derek McCormack
Pilot Press
2022, $25.00

In his new book Judy Blame’s Obituary: Writings on Fashion and Death, Derek McCormack does what very few in literary and fashion scenes dare do: not take himself too seriously. Sure, McCormack treats personal style, wearable art, and the work of fashion luminaries like Margiela as life-or-death matters, but for him, death is not as daunting as for the rest of us mortals; it is just “another form of fashion.”

In a rather McCormackian gesture, the Canadian writer ends his book by taking the most solemn of concepts and turning it into a pithy line, delivered without further elucidation. But we don’t want one. By now, we are familiar with his idiosyncratic humour and literary style. This is what McCormack does best: he hijacks the objects that adorn the surfaces of our world and turns them inside out, exposing their ugliness and using them as building blocks of a surreal world of his own. Judy Blame’s Obituary may nominally be a collection of McCormack’s articles and interviews on fashion, but it is also somewhat of a career retrospective. Conjuring the ghosts, monsters, and grotesqueries that litter his bibliography, these essays are a testament to McCormack’s unique voice and to the power of his sartorial and literary style. 

This is what McCormack does best: he hijacks the objects that adorn the surfaces of our world and turns them inside out, exposing their ugliness and using them as building blocks of a surreal world of his own.

Judy Blame’s Obituary opens with an author’s note. McCormack reminds us that “fagginess is what [he] writes about,” and this book is no exception. For a faggy reader like myself, the warning comes as no surprise, seeing as fashion and death are an average fag’s favourite subjects. But the note is really a warning about the kind of faggy writing you will find within. He writes: “All fags wear fashions – I’m wearing some! – and all fags die – I’m dying!” McCormack is unlike other queer writers of our times because he is not interested in using trauma and sincerity for sympathy and gravitas. For him, fagginess is a joke; it’s a shitty perfume that lingers around one’s body. McCormack’s sardonic view of sexual orientation perhaps came from dealing with the homophobic abuse and cruelty typical of a small Canadian town. The first essay in the book, “Peterborough,” dwells on the fictional versions of the Ontario town he built for novels like Dark Rides and The Haunted Hillbilly. McCormack doesn’t try to turn the darkness into light, nor does he loiter around the site of his trauma morosely. Instead, he uses his experiences to build Peterborough as he dreamed it: as a dark and sketchy city with “questionable quarters and stylish stores.” As he explains, 

I built [Peterborough] because it disgusted me and I disgusted it, and the disgust I felt drove me to write. When I hear writers talk about writing as freedom, as an expression of emotions, as a calling or communication or a conversation, I laugh. I can’t conceive of writing without disgust as the driving force–and as the desired effect. Writing is devotion to disgust. 

The reverence for revulsion that characterizes McCormack’s fiction writing also manifests itself in his fashion and art columns for Artforum, The Believer, and National Post, albeit differently. Mostly known as a venue for right-wing punditry, McCormack explains that he was able to write his left-field, lefty column in the National Post because the editorial board didn’t particularly care about him. Thanks to an unlikely combination of neglect and chance, McCormack managed to infiltrate a conservative space with unapologetically queer writing. Whether this was an intentional political gesture only McCormack will ever know, but it seems more likely that the writer was merely trying to carve his own space in an unlikely place. Still, there is something absurdly fitting about the thought of a conservative reader perusing the Post and stumbling upon McCormack next to an article by Jordan Peterson; it is a scene straight out of his novels. But compared to fiction works like A Well Dressed Wound and Castle Faggot, McCormack’s fashion writing takes a subtler approach. It doesn’t actively disgust the reader; instead, he builds a constellation of references that traffic in the ghastly and the beautiful like Jean Paul Gaultier’s funereal tuxedo, Judy Blame’s shit necklace, and the stylish life and death of Vera West. 

He styles his sentences like they’re his mannequins, with an eye for the feeling of emphasis but parodying the seriousness of the rhetorical device.

One of his biggest fashion inspirations is Martin Margiela, who he describes as a maker of haute horreur when he recalls his use of bacteria and mould in the late 90s. Margiela became his favourite because he wanted to be cool “in a whispery way.” McCormack was religiously devoted to Margiela; he tried to disappear into Margiela’s clothes and forgo his identity to “be blanked by a blank.” Attempting to become a serious and inconspicuous author whose work spoke louder than his appearance, McCormack read a lot of Roland Barthes and asked himself: if the author is dead, shouldn’t I wear black to mourn them? So, his sensorium became cathected with Margiela’s clothes until he disappeared in them. “I ascribed occult powers to him, and longed for him to grant me supernatural style and substance,” he writes. “But he’s no spirit. He’s a talented designer who’s played a terrific parlour trick: vanishing out of view, but haunting our heads.” Margiela taught McCormack how to dissolve his subjectivity, erase his ego, and blur the lines between author and writer, between designer and wearer. 

Before Margiela, McCormack was a fan of flashier fashions. He admired Jean Paul Gaultier’s ability to create images that replaced reality and Thierry Mugler’s fetish for fashion. In “Mugler Mania,” McCormack argues that it is not gay men that make fashion; to the contrary, fashion creates them. He recalls the work of Edmund Bergler, a psychoanalyst who argued that “homosexuals dressed women as monsters” due to our “unconscious hatred of women” and argues that Mugler’s perverse work would not have been possible if the designer had not been exposed to faggy couture growing up. Freud argues that a fetish is the image of the last thing one sees before seeing one’s “mother’s missing phallus,” and in Mugler’s case, it was Chanel, Cardin, or Courrèges—the haute-est of the haute. If Bergler or Freud had seen Mugler’s retrospective “Couturissime” at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Montréal, they probably would’ve fainted. With its vamps, she-devils, glamazons, fish women, chimaeras in golden armours, corsets, vinyl, rubber, mechanophilia, teratophilia, McCormack aptly describes the show as a “pervert’s paradise.” Mugler helps us see how fashion is the fabric of queerness. “This means that fashionlike fagginess – is forever,” he writes “Italics are mine.” He styles his sentences like they’re his mannequins, with an eye for the feeling of emphasis but parodying the seriousness of the rhetorical device. In the strange worlds of Mugler and McCormack, fagginess and fashion are codependent elements in a cycle of perversion, one that often stains the written word.

Refreshingly, McCormack reminds us that being fashionable or gay doesn’t have to be so self-serious or tragic; it can be macabre, uproarious, and uniquely one’s own.

McCormack’s musings on Margiela and Mugler highlight the singularity of his approach to fashion and queer writing. He is not interested in the familiar narratives of fashion and queerness as forms of self-expression. For McCormack, fashion and fagginess are ways to explore the world around him, to discover who he can be rather than scream out loud who he is. His is the passion of a window shopper, of a connoisseur who collects pieces in his mind and through his words. The column and interviews in Judy Blame’s Obituary explore the corners of fashion districts that other writers are too scared or embarrassed to walk through, leading to a kind of generative fashion writing that creates something beyond mere trend reports. “She didn’t make me realize that I was gay, or that being gay was ok,” he writes about Carole Pope of the Toronto punk band Rough Trade. “She made me realize what kind of gay I was: a victim of fashion.” Refreshingly, McCormack reminds us that being fashionable or gay doesn’t have to be so self-serious or tragic; it can be macabre, uproarious, and uniquely one’s own. His novel The Show that Smells, an absurdist and disgusting tale about the rivalry between Else Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel, is an excellent example of this kind of literary-stylistic world-building. 

Judy Blame’s Obituary ends with essays on miscellaneous topics like Halloween, sequins, his former publisher, and fantastic conversations with Edmund White and fellow Canadian fashion writer David Livingstone. In the titular essay of this collection, McCormack writes about a time when death was not merely a literary subject but a plausible reality. Browsing Judy Blame’s Instagram while recovering from cancer of the appendix, McCormack became inspired by the world that the designer created through his jewelry and art. After cancer, McCormack explains, the Judy Blame shit necklace that he owned “seemed – well not serious, but more serious. It was still funny, but also fearsome; still sickening but also sickly.” His lived experience elucidates the dialectic between the comic and the tragic that he has mastered on the page. This is why the wide array of essays fit neatly in this compilation, because it features a cohesive but elastic aesthetic. After writing queer Canadiana for decades, McCormack still remains largely underread and underrecognized. This new book comes at a rather interesting time for McCormack, who received critical attention last year, thanks to his excellent novel Castle Faggot. His collection of essays ought to cement his status and legacy as a maker of worlds. 

Under his pen, death, sexuality, and the most critical matter in life, fashion, take on a new appearance; they shed their dark shrouds and unveil a mirthful yet gloomy surface.

A hybrid of writer and fashion designer—with a dash of mad scientist—Derek McCormack has a vision. Under his pen, death, sexuality, and the most critical matter in life, fashion, take on a new appearance; they shed their dark shrouds and unveil a mirthful yet gloomy surface. This book proves he has what so many gay men today would kill and die for: a brand, or a distinct personal style. So, amid decorative Halloween cobwebs, various tchotchkes of High Canadiana, creepy Viktor & Rolf dolls, David Altmejd’s insectoid jewellery, the fumes of Tom Ford’s crotch-scented perfume, and the roaming ghost of Kathy Acker in archival Westwood, one settles down into something akin to a home. It’s the Hauntingly Hilarious House of McCormack, where death will always have the last word. 



Juan Camilo Velasquez is a Colombian/kinda Canadian writer based in Montréal. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Film-Philosophy, carte blanche, Commo Magazine, and Cultural Politics among others.

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