A few days ago Vogue Portugal released their July/August issue, titled the “Madness Issue”.Dedicated to addressing mental health problems the issue featured interviews and contributions from psychiatrists, sociologists, psychologists, and other experts. One of their covers lensed by Branislav Simoncik featured a woman in a bathtub with a nurse pouring water over her head in a rather dystopian hospital setting seriously reminiscent of an outdated mental health institution. According to a Vogue Portugal representative, the image was intended to “start a discussion” and “explore the historical context of mental health designed to reflect real-life and authentic stories,”
If controversy can be called discussion, then the cover has indeed accomplished its goal. Several readers and even celebrities such as Sara Sampaio (who publicly admitted she has suffered from mental health issues herself ) considered it “very bad taste”. She added that it comes at a particularly sensitive time because of COVID and the way that mental health has been dealt with ” while many people have been isolated or directly affected by the deadly coronavirus pandemic.” Other Instagram users called out Vogue Portugal for bad taste, and lack of sensitivity over such a serious issue resulting in Vogue Portugal pulling the cover off in a strive for a more thoughtful approach.”Vogue Portugal deeply apologizes for any offense or upset caused by this photoshoot,” the company said in an Instagram post, which showed a new cover image of a person holding a human heart.
Fashion is no stranger to addressing mental health issues in a graphic and rather controversial manner. In 2007, famed photographer Steven Meisel lensed a Vogue Italia editorial called Rehab. In this graphic editorial shot, supermodels Agyness Deyn, Denisa Dvorakova, Guinevere van Seenus, Irina Kulikova, Iselin Steiro, Lara Stone, Masha Tyelna, Missy Rayder, Sasha Pivovarova, and Tasha Tilberg are lensed in various rehab dystopian settings looking distraught-sometimes even suffering.
You may like it or not but you can’t miss the irony of it. And it’s even more alarming given the fact that fashion has been one of the most toxic workspaces. A study conducted by the US Center for Disease Control, which compared suicide rates among occupations, confirmed a strong correlation between working in the fashion industry and developing mental illnesses. In the study, the fashion industry ranked seventh on the list, beating out doctors, lawyers, and accountants. Most fashion insiders will tell you this is true,
Over the years mental health has seemingly become less taboo in the fashion industry. The tragic deaths of famed designers Kate Spade and Alexander McQueen and of people such as Isabelle Blow have managed to showcase the enormity of the issue. John Galliano, Kate Moss, Sara Sampaio, and Adwoa Aboah have publicly opened up about their struggles with mental illness. And while the industry seems to have been dealing with its flaws, the silence amongst people in the industry is still awkward.
Working in a highly competitive mode, designers, fashion journalists, and models find it hard to admit weaknesses-let along seek help for them.“Fashion expects workers to be jetting all over the world, to be available at all hours to communicate with international markets, to be totally switched on about all the information that is out, there across all platforms, and to be constantly focused on the next thing,” Caryn Franklin, fashion commentator and professor of diverse selfhood at Kingston School of Art have told fashion journal Drapers in a comment.
So why not put the problem on the cover?
Placing mental health issues on the cover needs an aesthetic that is not glamorizing them-making mental health problems ‘trendy’ and thus ‘desirable’ or even ‘artistically beautiful’. Breaking the taboo is excellent but can lead to a whole new approach of ‘ill is fashionable” and that mental health issues are something fashionistas even strive to obtain just to ‘look cool’. This is a process that can have a damaging impact on individuals suffering from mental illnesses-and introduce a totally wrong way of approaching the matter to non-suffering ones. In social media, depression, and anorexia have become an aesthetic to apply-an online ‘sad culture’ with followers and merchandise.
Caught between glamorization and destigmatization, the idea of the image’s context becomes crucial. Addressing such a sensitive topic is a step towards the right direction- as long as the context of the image supports removing the taboo, not making illness the fashion choice of the season. And that’s why putting mental health issues on a Vogue cover is not a good idea. At least for now.