Fashion and mental health: Does the industry need to take illnesses such as addiction and suicide more seriously?

Just a little fashion nerdery

Text: Ryan Sng

Image: Instagram

Like cinema and opera, fashion has historically thrived on theatrics. Heightened emotions can stun and move audiences, but there's a fine line between storytelling (which sparks conversations and awakens minds) and exploitation (which cheapens human feelings for entertainment).

Alexander McQueen is probably the name closest associated with that precarious tightrope walk, at least when it comes to fashion. He was a transportive raconteur who dithered between tormented darkness and sublime beauty; one never knew whether to expect shock or sweetness from him, and that persistent tension would become his enduring trademark.

Throughout his career, the designer painted a distressed-acting Shalom Harlow with a sinister pair of robotic airbrushes (spring/summer 1999), mounted a show in an 'asylum' set (spring/summer 2001's Voss collection, above), and recreated the desperation of Depression-era marathon dancers in They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (spring/summer 2004, titled after the 1969 film of the same name). He made arrestingly beautiful spectacles of model Aimee Mullins — who is a double amputee — and Michelle Olley, whose curvy, nude, and eerily masked body was the focus of a surprise reveal during Voss's finale.

McQueen — who was called a genius in his lifetime — battled addiction and mixed depression/anxiety disorders. Audiences were riveted by his tortured, unsettling runway displays and demanded more. Alas, his 2010 suicide would force the industry to reconsider its conflation of psychological illness with creativity. Almost a decade after McQueen's passing, however, fashion's relationship to mental health remains problematic; we've yet to pinpoint the exact moment when manifesting inner pain ceases to be cathartic or awareness-raising, and instead becomes toxic. Fatal, even.

Fashion has always loved people on the brink. Countless designers have sent out collections with unhinged muses at their heart, and stereotypes about maladjusted models, designers, and fashion editors abound to the amusement of many. Consider, for example, The Devil Wears Prada's memorable, still-quoted line "I'm just one stomach flu away from my goal weight", played for laughs.

Post McQueen, post-L'Wren Scott (who took her own life in 2014), and post-Kate Spade (similarly, in 2018), fashion is warier than ever of trivialising depression and self-harm; brand stance notwithstanding, Moschino's SS17 blister card-pill handbags and Burberry's FW19 noose hoodie both generated predictable levels of concern and outrage from the public. Still, fashion's vigilance vis-à-vis body dysmorphia, chronic stress, and other mental health issues remains underdeveloped.

Beyond the world of designer catwalks, Lazy Oaf's cult, antisocial slogan merch — of which this writer is an ambivalent fan — and the slow burn of yami-kawaii ('sick-cute' in Japanese, where psychiatric ward and hospital paraphernalia are cutesie-fied) reveals a youth culture in flux. The next generation of fashion creatives is struggling to stay on the right half of the divide between destigmatising social awkwardness and mental illness via humour and adorable imagery, and dangerous fetishisation.

Objectively speaking, the reception of their core message — that it's ok to feel a little strange or misunderstood, and to talk about it while simultaneously working on one's personal issues — mostly depends on the disposition of the viewer. Seen in that light, responsibility for how audiences react to depictions of mental illness is out of image-makers' hands, for better or worse.

Perhaps it's always been this way, and perhaps fashion will never get sensitivity towards mental health 100% right. To quote the artist Marcel Duchamp, “art is completed by the viewer”, not the creator.

That's no excuse, though, for those of us who work in the fashion industry to stop trying.

Read previous Fashion Nerdery entries here.