Wear the Words: “Because I could not stop for Death”

driving-with-death
illustration by John Lawson

Because I could not stop for Death –

He kindly stopped for me –  
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –  
And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –  
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –  
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed us –
The Dews drew quivering and chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –


Since then – ‘tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/because-i-could-not-stop-death-479

In the year 1862, the U.S. experienced the bloodiest day of its history at the Battle of Antietam, Mexican troops defeated the French on the day now commemorated as Cinco de Mayo, and Peruvian slave raiders began wreaking havoc on Easter Island. And Emily Dickinson wrote this poem. In a year so marked by blood and gore and death, Dickinson produced a masterful piece of art—about death. As war raged on in her country, Dickinson, in her small home, granted only the company of her sickly mother, characterized death not as an evil force but as a kind, normal man. Us modern readers of “Because I could not stop for Death” can appreciate the distinct point of view Dickinson adopts towards death and simultaneously draw on her art for fashion inspiration.   

Emily Dickinson’s famous poem relays a unique perspective on arguably the most inevitable event in life: death. The speaker tells a story, of encountering Death, watching her life go by, and eventually reaching the afterlife. Unlike most literature about death, the speaker here is unafraid of it, or him, in this case. Death is a perfect gentleman, a man who “kindly” drives the speaker into the afterlife. Judging by the speaker’s clothing (a “gossamer” “gown” and “tulle” “tippet”), she’s a bride about to be married. The only other character in the poem is Death; we can assume that the wedding is between him and the speaker. There’s a stark contrast between the conventional portrayal of death, which characterizes it as cold and harsh and evil. Dickinson seems to be telling us that Death isn’t something to be feared, that he is just the driver of a horse-drawn carriage that takes us to a place we were bound to get to anyway. Interestingly, the event of death itself is only a “pause;” the speaker then informs us that the afterlife (“Eternity”) is where she has spent the most time. The focus is shifted away from Death himself and placed on the afterlife, a concept generally thought of as “a better place.” Overall, the poem downplays Death by personifying him as a gentleman, describing the process as a leisurely chariot ride, and emphasizing the afterlife.

There’s an ample amount of fashion inspiration to be drawn from “Because I could not stop for Death.” In the most literal sense, you can focus on the clothing directly described in the poem. Tulle and gossamer are good starting points, as well as anything wedding related. Flowy, thin, and/or white fabrics would capture the image of Dickinson’s speaker. To gain the full experience, wear this outfit on a slightly brisk day at sunset so you, too, can feel “quivering and chill.”

From another angle, you can take inspiration from the themes and implications of the poem. Dickinson clearly seeks to move away from the traditional portrayal of death, so draw from her unconventionality and put a unique spin on a classic piece. To further tie the clothing to the poem, choose a piece that is generally thought of as harsh, dark, or edgy. Alternatively, play on the duality of death, incorporating both the harsh and “kindly” aspects into one cohesive unit. Romanticize something darker, or play with contrasting textures, colors, and patterns. Speaking of patterns, Dickinson’s steady rhyme and rhythm in this poem gives rise to a steady feeling, as if we are riding along with the speaker. A more mathematical and uniform pattern would nicely correlate to the horse-drawn carriage image.

Wearing Dickinson’s words can help to keep Dickinson’s legacy alive—we can only hope that Dickinson is enjoying her fame and our interpretation of her work for “Eternity” from the afterlife.

death-drives
illustration by John Lawson

 

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