Fashion’s sick obsession

This article was originally published here on _Shift London

Is the fashion industry breeding a malignant culture around illness?

Trigger warning: This article contains reference to suicide, chronic illness and mental health.

As trends seep and spread like bacteria, fashion has caught a new bug of its own. In an industry driven by rigid expectations, and a reliance on image, poor mental health has latched onto the fashion world almost undetected. Inspire Wellbeing 2018 reports that: “The likelihood of a mental health problem in the creative sector is three times that of the general population.” Designers, at the helm of creativity, are birthing a fascination with all things sick – and not in the cool, colloquial way. This fashion season saw intravenous (IV) drip-bags branded as a covetable accessory, bloody bullet-hole dresses and models raising a stark protest over straitjackets. Clothing has been given clinical treatment – and mental health may be the catalyst.

Perhaps these instances are but a metaphor for our dying planet, dwindling sensitivity around illness or society’s crumbling sanity. The answer remains blurred. Though it’s clear that the reception of medical references, during spring/summer 2020, has been met with an adverse reaction. In light of Gucci’s show – set in a faux psychiatric ward – the conversation around mental illness has been growing. The catwalk’s first 60 looks were blank straitjackets; whisked down the runway on a human conveyor belt of sorts, reducing its models to static mannequins in the same vein as a production line at Barbie’s toy factory. Less pink, more controversy.

Model Ayesha Tan-Jones scribbled the raw message: “MENTAL HEALTH IS NOT FASHION” in black marker onto their hands in response to the asylum-like atmosphere – where heart monitor bleeps sounded on a musical track, bouncing between the white walls. Though Gucci refused to sell the straitjackets, the brand upheld them as a tribute to: “Utilitarian clothes, the normative dress dictated by society and those who control it.” Yet Tan-Jones thought the meaning was ill-approached and, quite frankly, a disrespect to the inhumane history of mental illness.

But fashion psychologist, Dawnn Karen, at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, believes the show to be positive in terms of raising awareness: “My initial thought of the straitjackets? I was proud that the fashion industry had acknowledged health and psychology. This is progressive, it’s groundbreaking. A lot of people are close-minded to this field and it now means that people may be open to mental health and fashion together, beyond eating disorders.”

It echoes the disturbed Voss SS01 catwalk by Alexander McQueen that tapped into the idea of psychosis. A two-way mirrored box enclosed models who wandered eerily inside, tightly bandaged around their heads and unable to see the audience. Fashion’s exposure to mental health, as presented by McQueen, was received with praise at the turn of the millennium. Fast forward to a January 2019 study by Mintel and it – ironically – seems that this generation grew up to be mentally-fragile themselves: “With 25% of millennials being somewhat to very unhappy with their mental health.”

In just twenty years, the zeitgeist has gone from being completely intrigued to utterly appalled by illness in fashion. However, its commercial side may be to blame. Based on Gucci’s number one rank as hottest brand in the world and creative director, Alessandro Michele’s place as a leader in millennial retail, there are questions surrounding his motive for the collection. Are straitjackets a genuine political statement, or a selling point that appeals to the millennial mentality? A hospital-hype trend, if you will.

Image courtesy of Pyer Moss via thepsychologyoffashion.com

Founder of chronic illness charity Chronic Illness Support For All (CISFA), Joanne Kelly, has suffered first-hand with progressive medical conditions. She supports the idea of using hospital symbolism in fashion: “It can go very well and bring awareness to lots of invisible diseases, which is the majority of chronic illness – you can’t see them like you can a broken leg. Provided they get the right advice on how to portray it and do not just represent sickness to tick a box. If you had ten glamour models with stickers saying ‘I have arthritis, I have depression,’ it could actually be inspirational to others.”

Though Karen agrees, she believes that: “There should have been more of a disclaimer, because just seeing straitjackets is very jolting – it could trigger certain things in people. I know the intent wasn’t bad, I think it would have just been received better. It’s almost like cultural appropriation without the explanation.” Particularly important for a brand like Gucci; with its previous call-outs for using blackface, and having to hire a diversity manager in retrospect of this. 

Image courtesy of Kimhēhim via tag-walk.com

While bigger fashion houses squirm under the critics’ microscope, some nations have glorified illness for many years – often with little controversy. In Japan, for instance, the Harajuku subculture is well-versed with yami-kawaii (sick-cute) dressing that favours looking ill, and glamorises breathing masks. Yet the Western world seems to reel back in disgust. If these girls can flaunt syringe-style accessories, then perhaps the visions of South Korean brand Kimhēhim at Paris Fashion Week this season were not so sinister. Designer and founder, Kiminte Kimhēkim, dressed models in t-shirts emblazoned with “sick” typography, sending them down the runway gripping hospital equipment. 

An online poll conducted by _shift revealed that 67% of its 360 respondents were offended by the IV drip-bags in the show and most regarded them a mockery of chronic illness. That said, the factor striking a raw nerve with consumers was not the garments per-se, but rather their Attention Seeker collection title, that inevitably dubbed those with chronic diseases as fakers and frauds. “The thing is when you have a chronic illness, be it physical or mental, you are either thought by the general public as attention-seeking, as though you’re just pretending, or lazy. There are so many derogatory words that are used for people when they’re not believed. To use that particular term at a fashion show, in my opinion, is not right,” continues Kelly.

Such designs come at a time when mental illness is increasing among the Western populace, with a study by mental health charity, Mind, showing that 20 in every 100 people experience suicidal thoughts. Fashion is no exception: designers Kate Spade and the aforementioned McQueen both took their own lives within the past decade and the pressures of the industry could be implicated. The Business of Fashion furthers this idea – it reports that creative workers are thought to, “lack understanding about mental health and the ability to look after their own wellbeing,” from being underprepared at design school. Even those out of the spotlight – impressionable young girls in particular – struggle with body image, leading to eating disorders or an unhealthy obsession with social media, that is so synonymous with fashion today. 

But Richard Colwill of mental health charity SANE, tells _shift that the industry must work together, without judgement, to make change: “If a fashion house wants to raise awareness, and is taking steps to support people in the industry with mental health problems, then who are we to criticise? But incidents such as the one at Gucci suggest that the industry as a whole may still have some work to do.”

Image via tumblr.com

Despite the dark matter, there come rays of hope in the form of the British Fashion Council. Taking charge of internal mental health, the governing body set up the Model Programme to enlist a support network for those most at risk: fashion models. The initiative erects The Model Zone every season at the hub of London Fashion Week, 180 The Strand, to provide holistic therapies for models requiring a break. The union Equity is also in place to ratify model rights in Britain while non-profits such as BEAT and CISFA exist to champion body image and chronic illness campaigning from outside of the industry. So there should be less need for future protests in essence of Gucci. However, more could be done, according to Karen, who advises that a mental health check should be obligatory for all models to improve the current situation: “Acknowledging the model as a human, being mindful of criticism and having a requirement for a mental health assessment, perhaps pre-fashion week and also after, would help.”

Arguably, Kelly takes it one step further to suggest that fashion houses: “Should continue to visualise mental health and chronic illness, but do so with full-proof research and the correct charity support.”

Our social climate generates poor mental health, in turn manifesting as clinical clothing on the runway. But, until brands take the correct moral steps, there may never be a cure for the offense caused by straitjackets, blood or bandages. As stated by Colwill, “the issue is always the intention of a brand,” and this is the deciding factor in whether fashion is positively embracing illness or turning it into a distasteful trend.

If you have been affected by this article, international mental health and suicide prevention helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org. In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or SANE on 0300 304 7000. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the Crisis Support Service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Help for those with chronic illness can be found at www.cisfauk.com

Header image via tumblr.com

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