Mental Illness in the Fashion Industry


Two days ago, I decided that it was time for me to watch Grey Gardens since its been referenced in countless fashion spreads and articles and by a myriad of designers and photographers since its début. This 70’s documentary is about Jackie Kennedy’s cousins Big Edie and Little Edie and their life in a run-down, 28-room mansion in East Hampton. These former socialites are followed around by the film makers while they parade around a flea-infested, filthy house that had no running water and where raccoons, rats and 52 cats roamed free. The whole film records their spiraling lives of dependence and eccentricity.

“It’s very hard to live nowadays. Living is very difficult” says Big Edie in the film and despite the fact dark thoughts like these are expressed throughout the film, there is an overhauling sense of naïve, childlike happiness amidst the actually depressing and decaying reality of this mother-daughter pairing. 

The film has such a cult-following because it captures this fringed, isolated and idiosyncratic lifestyle that is as authentic as it gets. The level of strangeness of this pair goes beyond anything David Lynch or Tennessee Williams could ever even aspire creating. 

Yes, this film is strange and marvelous and the symbiotic relationship of these American aristocrats who long for their lost beauty and fabulosity is endlessly fascinating. But, I'm neglecting a big part of this film, the part that for me and many other like-minded, visually driven individuals glues the movie in our immediate consciousness- the fashion. 

One piece bathing suits, scarves wrapped around the head, floor length fur coats- there's something special about seeing these women living in squalor dance around in fabulous clothes. 

But why do we find the way Big and Little Edie dressed fashionable? Do we really? 

Perhaps is the other way around, perhaps what is fashionable is their bleak mental state. Perhaps, Little Edie's idea of the perfect costume: “pantyhose or some pants under a short skirt”, are not intrinsically stylish but the circumstance in which Little Edie dressed herself every morning- mental illness- is. 

Fashion has a thing for marginalized individuals, for the mercurial personality, for the deranged, the twisted, the insane. Suicidal designers, mentally ill fashion “icons”, delusions of grandeur, eating disorders, drug addictions, you name it, fashion has housed it, exploited it and been inspired by it. 

Yes, saying that there is a relationship between mental illness and the creative process is nothing new. But what is novel, is how fashion in particular not only harbors mentally deranged talent but seems to host it and celebrate it. 

It appears like the fashion industry is a proud, poised asylum where half the people are ill patients and the other half are mere frequenters with a voyeuristic agenda, seeking for inspiration and covering up their own insecurities with a bit of schadenfreude.

Designers, writers, curators, editors all rely in the power of observation to do their job. If ignorance is bliss, the opposite of being ignorant is being over-observant. Fashion is a place where you have to notice the trends others don’t, discover the references others haven’t, be incredibly alert of everything that surrounds you.

Diane Vreeland, iconic Vogue editor-in-chief once called genius but mad, addicted and depressed fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent a part of the “magnificent and pitiful family of the hyper-sensitive.”- this family is fashion. 

Hyper-sensitive geniuses are everywhere in the industry, one of them being the late Alexander McQueen. McQueen staged shows full of twisted fantasy with exuberant fabrics and equally powerful messages. He was the creator of disturbing and famously controversial shows. 

In one of his most legendary shows, “Highland Rape”, McQueen sent his models down the runway bloodied, battered with torn and disheveled clothes that were strategically ripped to mimic the “ethnic cleansing” the British held in the Scottish Highlands in the 19th century. 

What he created was much more than clothes to sell, shows like the Highland Rape did not produce profitable garments, it was a more of an image building exercise for McQueen. He provoked, he observed social injustice, created something beautiful of it and used his shows to incite thoughts and questions inside an industry that is often very blinded to the outside world. 

But McQueen himself, was just as dark, bruised and damaged as the models appeared to be in his “Highland Rape” show. He battled with substance abuse and depression and ultimately took his life. 

Damaged heroes like these make the fashion industry vibrate with thrill. Halston, Yves Saint Laurent, Calvin Klein, Marc Jacobs, John Galliano- all celebrated by the industry, all unstable, some drug-abusive, others mentally ill. 

Fashion is the only place where Heroin is Chic, where the more cocaine Kate Moss did, the more interesting a model she became, where being mentally unstable is not an illness is a fashion statement. 

All my life, I have been fascinated with 60’s “it” girl, Andy Warhol’s muse and American fashion Icon, Edie Sedgwick. A troubled girl, anorexic, drug-addicted, insecure and some would say a maniac. Edie’s doe-eyed expression and pixie hair cut are now immortalized in our minds, as mythical and iconic.

But the way she got to this privileged spot in every fashionably-aware person’s mind was everything but glamorous. She came from a family full of mental illness and strangeness. Much like Big and Little Edie, she lived an eccentric life, a life that skyrocketed with fame and luxury (spending her whole inheritance in a mere 6 months) and crashed with drug-abuse and suicide. 

So why is she an icon? The answer lays way beyond her fashion choices and personal style, it goes beyond her thick black eyeliner and earnings that were bigger than her face. It has to do with her, representing the essence of the fragmentation, the uncertainty and madness that fashion craves. There is a reason Edie Sedgwick is much more referenced in high fashion than Marilyn Monroe, who was Edie’s sunny, cheery, more mainstream counterpart. Edie is underground, she is the dark, brooding, fringe version of Marilyn. 

It is important to celebrate icons like Edie. Underground movements will always be empowered and pushed forward by fashion- an industry that accepts people who would otherwise be lost, giving them an outlet to explore their damaged mind. And, no matter how crass the outside world finds the fashion industry’s obsession with mental illness, this asylum will keep growing, voyeuristic observants and lost creatives will all find their way to this twisted institution, that in a way it is its own 28-room, dark and filthy Hampton mansion like Grey Gardens.