Trash Couture

"Marriage of Inconvenience" features a headdress of condoms and syringes, and a skirt made of post-use pill packets.

The worlds of fashion, art and AIDS activism are intimately connected, and they collide in the ebullient couture art of Rebecca Maxim. Maxim is a hospice nurse at Bailey-Boushay House in Seattle, where for the past 15 years she has assisted patients facing the complex challenges of living with HIV/AIDS. Five years ago, she returned to her roots in the textile arts when she began co-producing fashion shows with Haute Trash of California – gloriously campy productions that employed “trash couture” as a tool for educating the public about the serious effects of consumption and waste disposal on the environment.

Her experience as a hospice caregiver combined with a call to create art spurred Maxim to design Marriage of Inconvenience, a monumental gown that is the product of “the copious medications required to maintain relative health in [the] HIV/AIDS population.” The dress will be on exhibit at 908 Broadway starting July 15, as part of Spaceworks Tacoma. “I have collected thousands of these [post-use pill] packets, which are printed with the days of the week and times of the day that medications are to be taken,” says Maxim of the materials used to fabricate the ensemble: headdress, corset, petticoat, skirt and bouquet. “The elaborate wedding dress will signify the ‘pill burden’ [that patients carry], as well as the commitment, or marriage, to medication….The goal of this dress is as an educational piece about the continued struggle with HIV disease.” 

A cocktail dress by Rebecca Maxim features a pouf skirt of recycled styrofoam peanuts inside bird-proof garden netting.

Maxim, whose own favorite couturier is the late Alexander McQueen, favors a thrift-store jacket, layered top, jeans and Frye boots as her “uniform” for knocking around in. Of castoff materials she says, “Ordinary trash, which we don’t normally pay attention to, [can be] transformed, then wrapped around a body to become extraordinary. Then we notice the trash and begin to think about the volume of it.

“All the top designers have made pieces that are pure art (i.e., not wearable under ordinary circumstances),” she points out. With its lavish use of recycled plastic, her bridal piece combines potent messages about environmental degradation as well as the cost of HIV/AIDS. Maxim has been encouraged in the wedding dress project by Seattle artist Ross Palmer Beecher, who is artist-in-residence at Bailey-Boushay House.

"Steam Junque" is made from an erosion-control sock with a white pill-cup ruffle down the front. Sandal boots are designed from bike and wheelbarrow inner tubes. Model: Rebecca Maxim

Marriage of Inconvenience is a visual poem, a keening over the heartbreaking pain, suffering, expense and everyday tedium that is borne by those living with HIV/AIDS. “Even though the meds can sustain life, it is a commitment that can be hard to keep,” writes Maxim. It requires “an adherence to your vows through thick or thin, in sickness and in health, ’til death do you part….In every way possible, this dress is [a] graphic reminder of the endless schedule of medication [patients must repeat] ad nauseum week in, week out….

“Obviously, these drugs have saved lives,” says the hospice nurse. “When I started working in HIV, everyone died. They are living longer [now] but there are repercussions.” The retroviral drugs used to treat HIV/AIDS often have a host of crippling side effects: “Not everyone tolerates the drugs or even tolerates taking pills every day.” Then, there is the cost, anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 per month, she says, not including “the other drugs [patients] take for cholesterol, blood pressure, mental health, insomnia, pain – just to name a few.”

If there is a good side, says Maxim, it is that “people get a chance to live life….My advice: Just don’t get HIV.” The artist’s sister, Kristie, is producing a Trash Fashion show for The Next Fifty, the 50th anniversary celebration of the Seattle World’s Fair at Seattle Center, in June 2012 – when Maxim proposes to take her trash couture to a new level with digital media and a performance element. Marriage of Inconvenience, 908 Broadway, July 15 – October 31, 2011.