Lady Death is another DreamWorld character I’ve had in my head for a long time before I had the chance to photograph her. Sometimes that can be frustrating to postpone your idea for so long, but in this case, I’d imagined the image for so long and in such detail that it made for an extremely easy shoot! I knew exactly where everything should go, how to light it, the pose I wanted; it was all in my head and I just had to get it shot.
Let me tell you a little bit about the inspiration of her character. Lady Death is, as her name suggests, the incarnation of death within DreamWorld, but I didn’t want her to be the common, dark, grim-reaper version of death we see portrayed frequently. The concept of how she would appear came from a mix of Deerskin, by Robin McKinley, Come Lady Death, by Peter S. Beagle and a dash of my own attitudes and ideas about death.
I’m going to quote from Robin McKinley’s Deerskin and not give you the context which this passage is happening in, for one because if you get me started talking about Deerskin, it will take up more than this entire post, and also because it’s not incredibly important for my point and I want you to be intrigued to read it for yourself. I will simply say that this all happens in the first quarter of the book, so it is not the end it sounds like.
“Lissar went on breathing as she looked, because she did not know how to stop; but as time passed she felt the cold upon her [naked] body, feeling it like a soft inquisitive touch, like the feet of tiny animals. She did not recognize pain as present experience, for such distinction was too subtle for her now; rather it was that was what there was left of her, as screaming had been her existence some time before. The creeping cold was a change, or further refinement, upon her existence. But the cold was not content to pat at her skin and then grasp her feet, her hands, her belly and thighs and face. It wormed its way inside her; but [she could not resit it]. Nor, she found, did she now want to, for the cold brought oblivion, the cessation of pain.
And then she saw its face, and it was not an animal at all, but Death, and then she welcomed it. Almost she made her split lips work to give it greeting; but her voice had fled away some time before.
I am dying, she thought, in the guttering of consciousness, I am dying, she thought, in the encroaching stillness. I am dying, and I am glad, for Ash is already dead, and it will all be over soon.”
I will quickly say that while there are some very, very dark moments in Deerskin, it has been one of my two favorite books for well over a decade. Where there is darkness, the light shines more brightly, as in the case with this book.
Inspiration part 2 came, as I stated, from a short story Peter S. Beagle wrote called Come Lady Death. In it, the grand Lady Neville, famous for her grand, opulent balls, has grown bored with her own parties. In looking for a way to up the excitement factor, she decides to invite Death to her next party. An invitation is sent out… and a positive reply comes quickly. The guests nervously await Death, wondering what he’ll look like and are surprised when “a lovely young girl in a white dress stepped gracefully into the ballroom doorway and stood there smiling.
She could not have been more than nineteen. Her hair was yellow, and she wore it long. It fell thickly upon her bare shoulders that gleamed warmly through it, two limestone islands rising out of a dark golden sea… She smiled, and Lady Neville tried to smile back, but her mouth seemed stiff. ‘Welcome,’ she said. ‘Welcome, my lady Death.’
A sigh rustled among the lords and ladies as the girl took the old woman’s hand and curtsied to her, sinking and rising in one motion, like a wave. ‘You are Lady Neville,’ she said. ‘Thank you so much for inviting me.’ Her accent was as faint and almost familiar as her perfume.”
While the two stories don’t seem to have a lot in common on the surface, and especially not in the small fragments you’ve seen here, there were a couple main points I took away from them both. Death was a being or person who was a) not frightening in appearance b) not male, as expected, and c) more warm and welcoming than anything else. This fits in nicely with my own views on death and the afterlife. Everyone has their own thoughts and views on the subject, which is fine, but I don’t view either as a scary thing, nor the end. Of course, we grieve when death separates us from those we love, but I know that I will be reunited with them some day. I suspect that the first batch of “people” I’ll see when I pass the threshold to heaven will be a menagerie of furry, feathered, barking, purring, squeaking, singing creatures I have loved ;)
Drawing from all these sources, Lady Death emerged in my head. She should be warm, inviting, welcoming, maternal. She should not be frightening, but soothing. She should be connected with nature, because death is a natural part of life. Her clothing would be dark, but there would be no black allowed anywhere in her costume. And most importantly, when you look into her eyes, you need to know that all is well, all was well, and all would forever be well. I knew I needed to bring my dear friend and mostly-retired model Aly Darling into this image to embody all these qualities.
What should Lady Death’s clothing look like? The story Come, Lady Death is set in a slightly unspecific time; several hundred years ago at least. People throw balls, wear gorgeous gowns, ride in carriages… it brings to mind the 17th-18th century for me, though I have not confirmed this with Peter Beagle to see if that was his intention. I didn’t want to make her clothing especially period-specific, but it definitely needed to have an old-fashioned feel to it. How silly would it look if Lady Death was wearing the latest looks from this season’s runways? I settled on a semi-Victorian feel, which felt both old-fashioned and classic at the same time.
Since I wanted to stay far away from the typical associations with the standard Death figure, black was not allowed anywhere in her costume. I chose a beautiful purple dress with bell sleeves (purchased on Ebay for a few dollars) and went to work creating a cape for her out of some gorgeous teal satin I found.
I based the construction of the cape off of an actual Victorian cape I own (also purchased through Ebay, but as a wrap at my wedding, not for a costume).
I reverse engineered a pattern from the cape and cut the pieces out of the teal satin. I gave my cape several ruffled layers of fabric around the collar also, which were then copiously covered in flowers, each one hand-glued in place. I spent months slowly gathering the appropriately colored flowers in the amount I needed. Many of these were repurposed from previous DreamWorld costumes, like Perennial Parasol, Efflorescence and In The Lilac Wood, but this will be their final spot. I love the costume too much to take it apart! But I have to say, Icertainly got my money’s worth from the flowers!
Next came construction of Lady Death’s bonnet. I didn’t want her to have the standard hooded cloak, but I liked the idea of having her face framed in the way a cloak hood would. Given the Victorian-ish look I was going for, I built a bonnet somewhere in between a Regency bonnet and a Victorian one. When it’s your world, you get to pick and choose clothing details you like and use them however you want!
The base of the bonnet was some sheets of cardstock glued together into the general shape I wanted. I tried it on a few times and refined the shape. Next, I used spray adhesive to glue the teal satin to one side of the bonnet. This ended up leaving unexpected streaks of glue when dried (see the photo in the lower left corner below) so I quickly decided that side was the inside of the bonnet. I used a regular glue gun to edge the satin to the other side of the cardstock and the hem on the underside. I happened to have a small amount of very sparkly purple mesh which I added to the inside of the bonnet. This had the dual benefit of covering the glue streaks and adding some dimension and light within the darkness of the bonnet’s underside.
Next came the fun and slightly tedious task of decking out the bonnet! Multiple layers of ribbons, trims and flowers were added to it. And because someone already asked this, yes, I did glue those teeny tiny individual little flowers to the top and underside of the brim one by one. I was not excited to do that, but it was well worth it. You can see Maynard wanting to help in the last couple photos. A beautiful, wide, dark blue satin ribbon finished the bonnet off and looked beautiful tied under Aly’s chin!
I seem to have not taken any images of the staff construction, sorry about that. I must have been rushed. I’ll tell you about it though, it was pretty easy. With the abundance of sticks of all sizes within my yard, I found a good staff-sized one. I spray painted it a dark brown and kissed it gently with some metallic bronze spray paint. I already had a string of small, battery-operated LEDs which I’d stuck through the middle of some small flowers. The LEDs and flowers were taped rather roughly to the staff with masking tape, which I knew I could edit out later. I knew it would add work in post, but it seemed the best solution at the time.
The bird skeleton is an actual bird skeleton and was incredibly delicate to work with. I tried to be reverent and ask the bird’s spirit for permission to use it before I did, and so far the house doesn’t seem to be haunted by any bird ghosts, so I’m hoping that means the bird was ok with my use of it. It was attached using a mixture of masking tape and fine wire. I made a small wreath for it with the same tiny purple flowers I’d edged the bonnet with to take away a little of the creepy factor of a bird skeleton while also tying it in more directly with the overall costume.
Since Aly and I both have health problems and don’t live especially near each other, it took a while for us to find a time when we could actually shoot this image. Eventually though, the stars aligned and everything went perfectly! I absolutely loved the images straight out of camera and knew they wouldn’t need much editing. However, I forgot to take detail shots of the costume while it was on Aly… so Calantha came to the rescue! She actually enjoys it when I dress her up since she knows it means copious praise and treats.
You can see how little she cares about the cape, she didn’t even move after I draped in on her. She didn’t like the bonnet when it flopped over her face and couldn’t see, but as long as I kept it adjusted, she was really pretty cool about it.
After all that, let’s check out the final image! Scroll down for detail shots :)
That closeup of Lady Death’s face makes the whole image for me. The gentleness, the kindness, the love shining out of her face shows exactly who the character is. Thank you very much to Aly for portraying her so perfectly, and to Calantha for modeling the costume after the shoot :)
Thanks to you for reading! What do you guys think about the afterlife? Would you find it comforting to find Lady Death escorting you to the rest of eternity?