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Sarah Sands

Sarah Sands: To die for – the etiquette of funeral fashion

Black is always in style, above all in the cemetery

The designer Alexander McQueen was desolate over the death of his friend Issy Blow and showed it by dressing up as never before for the occasion of her funeral. Last Thursday, the fashion crowd returned the compliment, with a spectacular display of coffin chic for their favourite designer.

Daphne Guinness arrived in a full Morticia cape and veil as if she were ready to accompany McQueen on his journey. Kate Moss, in an explosion of feathers, went for the emu look.

Black is fashion's favourite colour, and this was its finest hour. The McQueen funeral exceeded even the gaspingly elegant mourning parade for Yves Saint Laurent a couple of years ago, when Catherine Deneuve appeared in a sort of haut-porn mac, Claudia Schiffer looked like a funeral bride and, of course, Carla Bruni showed her husband what a real state funeral should look like.

Fashion, like the military, is good at funerals because it understands the resonance of the external. If someone is dead, why should it matter that buttons are polished and the right flowers chosen? The point is that such care shows both humility and defiance at the grave. It elevates the human before conceding the physical frame to soil and ashes.

Naturally we are more accustomed to funerals for the old. As the years pass, such ceremonies acquire the constancy of the seasons. They become a meeting place for dwindling friends. It is different when people die young. The mourners at Alexander McQueen's funeral had not yet acquired the same experience of life. Their grief took the physical form of the beautiful hangover.

The last time I can remember quite such a show was the funeral of the rock star Michael Hutchence, which seemed a remarkable celebration of sexuality. His lover, Paula Yates, appeared at the Sydney funeral with a broken heart, a child on her hip, and her cleavage on poignant display. Why should mourning be demure, when life was an act of reckless passion? Actually all the women with whom Hutchence had affairs turned up as if they had been sexually interrupted. Dear little Kylie Minogue looked like a lap dancer. It was as if the grief were a form of sexual bereavement.

Few of us approach funerals with such confidence. While we reassure ourselves that funerals are a celebration of a life as much as a recognition of death, we are conceptually indecisive in what we wear and turn to unassuming black.

Close relatives of public figures experiment with patterns or dark blues and greys that frighten the more timid back pews. Penny Mortimer wore a dashing shade of brown to the funeral of her late husband, the writer John Mortimer. The inner circle has earned the right to flashes of jauntiness, chin up in the face of adversity, that would make the rest of us look crass.

The funeral of all fashion funerals should have been that of Princess Diana. It had beauty, drama, military choreography and Elton John. But while the fashion crowd claimed Diana as their own, and Mario Testino immortalised her, it could not be a total killer heels and huge sun glasses affair, because of the crusty relatives. The bewildered royals, the public Greek chorus in their plastic macs, the hideous flowers in cellophane would not have been allowed at a true fashion funeral. If Tom Ford had art directed Diana's funeral, we would have lost the meaning of it.

The smartest funerals compete with film premieres and fashion shows to make the front page of newspapers. In the pictures from the McQueen funeral we were able to see both the style and the tragedy.

Sarah Sands is deputy editor of the London Evening Standard