Sunday, 11 October 2020

Broken Mirror; Mental Health in the Fashion Industry

Written by Kerri Plumtree
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Cristian Newman - Unsplash

The topic of mental health among Fashion Designers, Models and Professionals is becoming an increasingly difficult topic to ignore.

Especially when you begin by considering the high-profile suicides of Isabella Blow, Lee Mc Queen, Sally Brampton, L’Wren Scott, Kate Spade and tragically an Un-named third year Fashion Student studying at the highly prestigious Antwerp Academy in Belgium.  

A study conducted by the Office of National Statistics carried out between 2011 and 2015 indicated that males working within the Culture, Media and Sports sector had a 20% (above the national average) increased risk of suicide. The same study determined that females working in the same sector had a 69% (Above the national average) increased risk of suicide (Windsor-Shellard, 2017). 

It is important to clarify that the link between the arts and mental health is a tenuous one. Psychologists maintain that there is very little evidence to support the notion that working in the creative industries causes mental illness, as there are many contributing factors that determine the mental well-being of an individual. They do agree that people with a predisposition to mental illness may be drawn to Fashion and the Creative industries as eccentricity and edginess is encouraged in these sectors. However, an individual’s symptoms may become exacerbated by working in the Fashion Industry by engaging in unhealthy working practices (Dodgson, 2018) 

creating Toxic Working Practices In The Fashion Industry: 

Fashion Professionals are subjected to high levels of stress, long anti-social hours, and demanding deadlines. They are under immense mental pressure to deliver an endless stream of creativity and innovation (Press, 2018). Practitioners have often invested a great deal in their careers so a lot rests on being successful and maintaining that success. Designers are under constant pressure to find and create the next ‘big trend’, each one must be bigger and better than the one before. In Fashion it is a common understanding that you are only as good as your last collection. When John Galliano had his infamous breakdown in 2011, he was overseeing 32 collections a year and a show every Four weeks (Gorton, 2015). It is this kind of working environment that cultivates unhealthy working practices amongst creatives.  Fashion professionals are often subjected to recurrent public critique of highly personal work that can be damaging to the emotional well-being of an individual (Gillian W Shorter, 2018).  Destructive working patterns such as eating poorly, disrupted sleep and not taking adequate rest breaks form very early on in a designer’s career, often when they begin studying at University.  

stigma Surrounding Mental Health In The Fashion Industry: 

All professionals in the Fashion industry are operating within a highly competitive arena.  There is a lot at stake and there is a feeling that you can easily be replaced. There is a common belief among people within the industry that if you seek help you are revealing a weakness about yourself and by openly admitting you are not coping you are vulnerable and therefore incapable of doing your job (Fashion, 2016). In British culture it is still very much considered inappropriate to discuss feelings and emotions, one must maintain a “stiff upper lip” and keep ones “Best foot forward” at all times. The danger with farming this attitude is that it encourages individuals to repress their true nature. This can be destructive, exhausting and in the long term, for those who have a predisposition for mental illness, it becomes mentally unsustainable. It inevitably leads the development of unhealthy coping mechanisms such as self-medicating with alcohol and substance misuse. 

self-medicating And Substance Misuse In The Fashion Industry: 

John Galliano’s and Lee Mc Queen’s drug misuse has been well documented over the Years. In an interview for Dazeddigital in 2015 John Galliano speaks candidly about his struggles with alcohol and drug addiction. He describes himself as being shy in social situations so used drugs and alcohol as a crutch to get him through the relentless demands of social gatherings, turning to Valium to stop the shakes during fittings and finally sleeping tablets because he suffered from insomnia. As he descended further and further into his addiction, he became increasingly isolated (Gorton, 2015). Substance misuse often mask the symptoms of a serious mental health problem and is widely accepted as the norm within the Fashion Industry (Press, 2018). Drug use among fashion individuals stimulates irrational and erratic behaviour which not only affects the individual’s ability to create and make competent decisions but also negatively affects the working environment for the people around them. 

Conclusions And Recommendations: 

This report has discussed a small proportion of the fundamental issues facing individuals in the Fashion Industry and how these issues impact on mental health. There is plenty of opportunity for the development of further research in this area. I have concluded that at this current stage there appears to be very few safeguards in place to aid the creation of healthier working environment for Fashion professionals. As an industry it seems ill equipped to recognise and assist those who struggle with their mental health despite the industry being a beacon for the mentally vulnerable and profiteering greatly from their creative assets (Press, 2018). The findings of this report must be interpreted with caution as mental health is very much like the arts as it is subjective to the individual a one size fits all approach is unsuitable. 

Curriculum Development: 


As discussed in the section addressing Toxic working practices many professionals begin their unhealthy working patterns during their formative years at University. Therefore, I recommend that creative institutes begin to implement adequate training and education on how to manage their time effectively and encourage practice that will reduce the impact on an individual’s mental well-being.  This can be achieved by equipping students with the skills to identify the risks involved with mental health of engaging with unhealthy working patterns and how to develop healthy protective coping mechanisms by strengthening their support networks among friends, family, professionals already working in the sector and qualified mental health professionals. It may also be helpful to guide and  inform individuals with an interest in pursuing a career in the Fashion Industry about the pitfalls of  working in a highly competitive and highly stressful working environment so that when they obtain  employment they are less likely to suffer from cognitive dissonance should they discover that the  Industry is not what they thought it would be. Finally, I suggest that institutions invest in opportunities that facilitating aspiring fashion professionals to be able to cultivate practical strategies that will aid the creative individual to be more resilient in the world of work. 

Creating Healthy Working Practices: 

Creating healthy work spaces for creative to thrive and innovate in are key to alleviating the mental pressures on professionals working in the fashion industry. Manageable working hours and regular breaks must be implemented to fall in line with standard working hour’s legislation followed by most other industries. Employees in the fashion industry must be aware of their working rights with stable and clear contracts that fully disclose the nature of the job and the expected requirements. It would be helpful to develop a worker’s union that deals specifically with creative working practices and legal issues facing people working in Fashion and the creative industries. If people feel confident of their rights and secure in their jobs it will alleviate some of the mental pressure that comes with thinking you can be replaced at any moment. In addition to job security companies need to ensure that the stigma around mental health issues are broken down by providing a safe and confidential environment that will empower struggling individuals to seek help. 

Assistance with Substance misuse: 

Drugs and alcohol appear to be common place and widely accepted within the Fashion Industry. If anything, it seems as if the topic of drugs and alcohol misuse within the industry is the only topic they wish to discuss less than mental health. My initial response was to implement standardised drugs tests for professionals within the industry as a way to discourage drug use but this would leave individuals needing to seek help afraid to approach someone for it. Therefore, it is recommended that they should cultivate a culture of awareness surrounding the consumption of drugs and alcohol and provide information that enables individuals to make informed choices and seek confidential help should the need arise. 

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