FASHION IS DYING: A CONVERSATION WITH MORTICIAN AMBER CARVALY
Who would have thought that a platform called “FASHION IS DYING” would be interested in the overlap between death and adornment? Well, it is Scorpio season and the day after tomorrow is Halloween, so this should not be a shock to anyone. Speaking from a personal place, the death card in the tarot was my first muse. The 13th card in the deck speaks of endings as beginnings; transformation in its most potent form, creating rebirth from death. I started dressing in honor of this card (even writing my first ever freelance piece around this) when I was 19 and things shifted when I did. The overlap between the realm of the spirits and myself seemed thinner than ever when I draped myself in something that connected me to the other side.
If there’s someone else who understands the intersection between fashion and death, it’s LA based mortician and makeup artist Amber Carvaly. Through a long and winding journey with makeup and the death industry, Amber has combined her passion for adornment, beauty and helping people connect to death in a new way. One third of Undertaking LA, the all women run “hands on” mortuary, Amber’s committed to helping everyone she works with relate to, and experience death in a holistic way.
FASHION IS DYING talked to Amber about her background with makeup, how she got into death work and what it was like being on Keeping Up With The Kardashians.
FASHION IS DYING: Can you tell me a little bit about your background and how you came to be a mortician?
AMBER CARVALY: I graduated from UC Riverside with a degree in Women's Studies. However, I dropped out of school my sophomore because I was horribly depressed and couldn't stay focused and knew that if I stayed I would fail all of my classes. I would literally ditch class and just sit outside the auditorium. I never studied. It was just a colossal waste of time for who I was in that moment. Funny enough they now call what I did a "gap year" and recommend it because kids are so burned out from being in school their whole life that the break actually helps them recenter. My parents were so mad at me but it was honestly the best decision I ever made. If I had not dropped out of school then I can say with all certainty I would not be where I am now. I wanted to find myself and I knew that search wasn't in a classroom.
I moved to LA and went to MUD (Make-Up Designory.) I put everything on my credit cards and doubled down on the insanity that was living in LA at 20 and working in Hollywood. After doing makeup and — surprise surprise — realizing it wasn't as glamorous as I thought it would be, I went back to school and it was like a whole new me. After school I worked at the Downtown Women's Center. I worked directly with the homeless population and it was incredibly rewarding, but when we hit the recession, I lost my job and was sort of just lost again. Don't laugh — but the reason I thought of being a mortician was because... I met a boy. He was so dang cute, and I just sort of had this aha moment. I thought that this would be something I could be really good at. I had no reason to think that I would or could, but you know when you know? And at the very least I knew it would be an adventure and I suppose that has always been my main motivation. To "live".
FID: What was it like translating makeup to death work (sorry if you answered above!)
AC: I think as far as translating makeup to mortuary work, it was just a key piece of my story/past that made me think that life was pushing me somewhere specific. Like, I did makeup on movies and it was not for me, but I tried to be open to the idea that life wanted me to have it in my back pocket for something else, and I would just know when I know.
As far as technical skills, I think that nearly any girl that has applied makeup [to themselves] could do makeup on the dead right now. And I only mean to say that in a way that inspires others them to take control when their mom or grandma or even friends dies; to know that they do not need to know any special skill to do makeup on the dead. Sure, there are special cases like car accidents, major facial trauma, skin discoloration, etc. But the very basics are the same. Makeup school is really useful for learning the basics of movie makeup and lighting, cuz damn if lighting isn't everything!
FID: I am fascinated about the overlap of fashion and death. Especially in the Victorian area! How do you see the overlap of fashion and death interacting, and what does it mean to you?
AC: My first thought that fashion is a direct reflection of life and living. Fashion tells you what life was like, it’s a time stamp. You can understand all the little nuances of life by the type of material that was used, or better yet, not used. WWII is a great example of life and death influencing fashion, since material like nylon was permitted only in the manufacturing of parachutes, tire cords, ropes, aircraft fuel tanks, shoe laces, mosquito netting and hammocks, etc. Metal used for boning, zippers, fasteners went to military production as well, and the German invasion into France forced closure of fashion houses and a radio silence that would leave the US and Britain open to creating clothing during this downtime. The way we traveled changed during this time and our needs as women changed too. Clothing needed to be invented that would allow us to ride a bike, drive a car, work…etc. Then you have Christian Dior's "New Look" that is so iconic and people see it and know it but don't know what it represents. And that look is all "war is over bitches! fashion is back in!"
Fashion, when it comes to the dead, well that is all very personal to the person who’s died. It is the ultimate "last look". It's always really interesting to see what people will bring in, but to be honest, my favorite things are the accessories, as I think they tell a story about a person. It's the way we take our little black dress and make it our own, whether with a certain shade of lipstick or a special set of pearls, or you know what, even a colored bra underneath. I never like to tell families what to bring other than “don't forget underwear!!” I want it to be a ritual for them. I want them to decide. I think that the clothing is part of the closure. You are aiding in sending the spirit off when you choose these items. You are leaving your fingerprints on the dead for them to carry into the next world or into the nothingness.
FID: You were recently on KUWTK! What was that experience like?
AC: Yes I was! And I got a lot of mixed comments, as you may imagine. But I will say this. Kim was super nice and Mario was as well. Girl is all business and my guess is she is probably pretty damn smart. She is as comfortable in her clothing as she is out of them and I think a lot of us want that kind of power; it's something money can't buy. I feel really really lucky that the decisions I have made put me in a place where the producers of her show actually found and approached me. So yeah, I guess I just feel lucky and thankful to have had that opportunity. And I am so happy to state that she was nice cause I have met a lot of famous people who were horrible, and she was not one of them.
FID: Is fashion dying?
AC: I think fashion is a phoenix. Its death brings something new and beautiful. It shapes us as a culture; it’s so powerful it shapes other cultures. It's immortal.
FID: If you were to die an an outfit and have it be your ghost outfit forever, what would it be and why?
AC: I feel like I have to answer this with the idea that ghost would be seen haunting a place and I would be horrified to know that someone would be like "there goes that raggedy ass ghost again in some jeans and a shirt and no shoes cuz she was apparently lazy as hell when she was alive." I mean I do want to be comfortable in the afterlife though. I'm looking at my cat and I'm like… can I just walk around holding him? To be honest I think I would enjoy wearing my american apparel track shorts with basket ball socks and a muscle tee with my little kawaii sneakers. I feel like people would be super confused by my ghost, like "is she rocking cool fashion or late for a sports game?" and I would just be cozy and chilling, haunting some hotel near a beach.
FID: What's something you wish people knew about death and death work?
AC: I wish people knew that it wasn't really as romantic as art makes it seem. That romance is inside of us and it is our dance and relationship with our mortality. Death work is a lot of paperwork, and it's not always as outwardly rewarding as people hope that it will be. You have to really, I mean reaaaaallllly want to be here to do this job. Because the truth is not everyone thanks you, and why should they? The death you are helping it is not about you, it is about helping others. And if you truly love it, then you must love without the hope of being loved in return. So you need to have love for yourself, and you need to have the ability to know when to pull back and love and protect yourself, otherwise this job will swallow you whole and leave you feeling a bit jaded and dismayed.
FID: Are there any designers you love who have used grief as inspiration? (I'm thinking of McQueen!)
AC: McQueen is fabulous. The 2006 line is gorgeous beyond gorgeous. Yohji Yamamoto Spring 1999 line struck me as the most grief inspired, and the funny thing is that it is a "wedding" line. But I think that that makes so much sense, because what really is the difference between a wedding and a funeral? Something ends. Something begins. I'd be curious if you felt the same looking at it. Honestly that is a deathy house. I started going through all the shows and all of them read as 'death' to me. It's just this feeling I get from the clothing. I'd be super curious to dig deeper now.
FID: Can you tell me about Undertaking LA? I love this! How does fashion come to play in this, if at all?
AC: So the easiest way to describe Undertaking LA is that we are a funeral home that encourages families to be more hands on with the body. We are incredibly transparent and we keep our prices pretty low so that we are able to help anyone and everyone. The hope is that by educating people about how to safely handle the dead that we can find a better way to grieve and (to be blunt) not go into debt from funeral bills.
As far as fashion, I think the easiest way to talk about that is in terms of how I was required to dress at an old funeral home I worked at. When I was in the embalming room I could wear scrubs, I usually wore lilac pants and a fun flower shirt or something else loud and bright. However, when I had to be seen by families I was required to wear my uniform which consisted of slacks, a button down, and a jacket. I HAD to cover my tattoo on my wrist which by the way reads "this too shall pass” (totes offensive right?) They encouraged us to wear scarves. If you wore a skirt you were supposed to wear pantyhose. When you are forced to wear that, it feels super oppressive and gender specific and I hated it!
Caitlin (Doughty) is probably the coolest partner/boss you could ask for in that she trusts my judgement for what I want to wear. When I do services in the desert I wear jeans now because I am so hands on with the body that on one occasion I ended up in the grave with the body. When I had more time and money I was constantly going to crossroads trading to buy new clothing which I would wear once and then promptly sell on eBay cuz I am a hustler through and through. Now I have way less time and disposable income so I have more of a uniform that I wear — but even that is pretty fashionable. I wear cute trousers and large billowy blouses. Ive been told I dress like a grandma but I think that’s ok with me. Mostly I try not to be flashy because I don't want to look like I am trying to make a funeral about me, so I wear muted colors with subtle cuts (nothing form fitting if I can help it).