Friday, 22 December 2017

"there's romance in sadness": mental health visibility in fashion

It's been a good few months for Adwoa Aboah. 

Gazing out at the world from the cover of the first issue of Edward Enninful's Vogue, Aboah symbolises the start of a new era for the magazine, and a new attitude towards diversity in fashion. Only a month after the issue was revealed, Aboah won Model of the Year at the Fashion Awards, beating the Hadid sisters for the title. She has come a long way since an attempted overdose in 2015; a topic she is refreshingly vocal about, bringing mental health into the conversation in the fashion industry.

Having seen her face in campaigns and editorials, the first I properly heard of Aboah was from the Evening Standard magazine that I picked up on my way home from Vogue in July. I read the interview on the train and I was taken aback by her openness about her struggles with depression and addiction. It was then I realised that when it came to discussing mental health, the fashion industry was lagging behind.

Big names in film and, in particular, music had become increasingly vocal about mental illness earlier in 2017. The Stormzy NME cover may have been misguided, but, in many ways, it became a catalyst for the mental health conversation in music. Music, however, has always lent itself to this. Of course this applies to some genres more than others, but there are no shortage of songs describing the experiences of living with a mental illness. 

Fashion falls short because the whole industry is essentially about covering up. It is one of the only creative industries that suggests a lack of sensitivity is needed to succeed. You are told to "develop a thick skin" in order to make it in fashion. There has been little awareness of mental illness in the industry until now.

"There's romance in sadness." Discourse around mental health in fashion has changed a lot since McQueen’s suicide.

When Alexander McQueen committed suicide in 2010, the fashion industry should have turned its focus towards mental health. Instead of looking at the absurd pressures put on designers to produce up to 10 collections a year, McQueen was martyred as a misunderstood artist. His death has been romanticised and mythologised, almost allowing us to forget the painful reality of it.

It is true that his work is deeply emotional; perhaps moreso that any designer before or since. It was difficult not to be moved by the 'Savage Beauty' exhibition when I saw it at the V&A. This emotion is what makes McQueen's work so special. The industry should nurture creatives and give them the time and space to perfect their work as well as giving them time to look after themselves.  

Fashion editor and friend of McQueen, Isabella Blow, had committed suicide in 2007. After her death, Daphne Guinness set up the Isabella Blow Foundation, which supports fashion and art students as well as funding research into depression and mental health. Fashion Communication students have some of the highest rates of anxiety out of any university course. The competitive aspect of the fashion industry as well as its emphasis on appearance and the nature of the job market today, make fashion students at high risk of developing mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.

 “Don’t make yourself small”

“Don’t make yourself small,” psychologist Dr Lauren tells Adwoa Aboah in this video interview for Vogue. “Fitting in is gross. There’s no reason to fit in.” Aboah’s first assignment as Vogue contributing editor was to interview Dr Lauren on the topic of mental health, and issues facing young women in particular. Seeing two successful women talking honestly about their own struggles with anxiety disorders, depression, addiction, body issues and mood swings on the Vogue Facebook page instead of another “behind-the-scenes with Kendall” video is so empowering.

Fashion itself has an obsession with smallness that is deeply problematic. It seems to tell you to, "make yourself small." Having promoted unrealistic beauty standards and disordered eating behaviours for so long, it is essential that the industry enters the conversation about mental health and repairs some of the damage it has contributed to. 

"The young generation has no time for anything that is no authentic or honest."

The bitchy fashionista clich√© means that, in the fashion industry, you are told to toughen up, never smile and place disproportionate value on material possessions. This narrative excludes those who suffer from mental illness because it encourages so many unhealthy thoughts and behaviours. That is why it is so liberating to see Adwoa Aboah on the cover of Vogue. She proves that you can never be defined by an illness. The term “model-activist” often has an inauthentic ring to it, but if anyone is deserving of the title, it is Aboah.

Due to her personal experience, Aboah will make sure that fashion's engagement with mental health will not be just a trend. Whilst Vogue's average demographic is slightly older, it must engage in issues concerning young people in order to survive. The recent success of Teen Vogue has proven that young people want to read about important topics, not just "10 party dresses to wear this season" or "How to get him to like you back." With the number of young people suffering from mental illness at epidemic levels, it is crucial that this is addressed by magazines that present themselves as aspirational.

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