Is fashion going too far?

Latest posts by Jack Wardlaw (see all)

Picture the scene: white cell bars, punching bags, and someone being dragged towards them by two nurses in green. What do you think I’m describing? An episode of Orange is The New Black perhaps? NCIS? Maybe even a gripping documentary about life in prison? You’d be forgiven for thinking so, but I’m afraid you are wrong. What I’m actually describing is the concept for the latest DSquared2 menswear show in Milan. Can it get much more opposite? A harsh, bleak correctional institution serving as the inspiration for a glamorous party and celebration of luxury?

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Have a look, also, at the womenswear show, set in a “rehabilitation facility” (or as most people reported it “a mental asylum for divas”), where the shoes bore a striking resemblance to cuffs used to confine patients to their beds and where nurses in white accompanied models down the runway. Doesn’t trivialising mental health issues to advance fashion exposure seem pretty inappropriate? It begs the question: Can fashion shows ever go too far? What is the limit of acceptability and where do you draw the line?

Fashion shows are essentially advertisements. They show the world what each particular brand is doing for the new season and the preoccupations of their designers. In the images that circulate around the world, just as adverts for McDonalds and John Lewis do, they make their statement. They represent the brand in the public sphere, and so understandably, they want to stand out. There is a reason the John Lewis advert is so popular every Christmas, and why we all hate the Go Compare opera guy. They stand out, they are memorable, and the same goes for fashion shows. Alexander McQueen’s Plato’s Atlantis show, for S/S 10, became renowned in the fashion world for its use of live-streaming (being one of the first shows to use technology like that) and the unbelievable “armadillo” shoes as they became known. Even if you don’t take that much of an interest in the shows themselves, it is highly likely that you will have seen the clothes, mainly because one of the iconic looks featured in Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance music video.

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The power of the catwalk within the fashion world is unquestionable and “with great power comes great responsibility”. When shows go global, they reach a truly diverse range of audiences, which can cause a problem when shows try too hard to stand out. For example, in the case of DSquared2, using a mental asylum to showcase their clothes has very serious implications. For individuals experiencing issues with mental health, the use of a psychiatric facility to showcase fashion will most likely come across as derogatory and insensitive, and invokes a historic register of restriction and difficulty for many out there. Likewise with the prison setting of the menswear show (dubbed “the bad boy confined to a madhouse” by one website), trivialising these very serious institutions may be deeply offensive to a number of people. Using mental illness to sell clothes, with the tagline “crazy, crazy, crazy for fashion, because that’s our mission” from Anna Dello Russo and the DSquared2 boys claiming “this is a great institute for inspiration”, surely steps way beyond what is appropriate for advertising?

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It’s not just DSquared2 that may have strayed over the line between making a statement and just trying to shock. Alexander McQueen was notorious for treading dangerously close to this line during his lifetime, frequently pushing the limits of what was considered acceptable to view in a public setting. His S/S 1997 collection La Poupée opened with model Debra Shaw manacled in a cage-like contraption, inciting obvious connotations of slavery. It was a show that shocked and enraged the fashion press at the time, and even today it is an image that makes people uncomfortable. According to McQueen, however, this collection was inspired by the work of surrealist photographer Hans Bellmer, who became known for his images of life-sized female dolls, rather than a desire to shock. McQueen explored the idea of women being restrained and confined in society, by photographs, by clothes and by men.

Similarly, in his S/S 2001 VOSS collection, McQueen ended the show by revealing a woman surrounded by moths wearing nothing but a gothic gas mask. Again, it was shocking, but there was method in the fashion. McQueen explained how the image of this woman, a woman who one might not necessarily consider “beautiful”, alongside the runway design which featured a one-way mirror so that the audience could see in but the models could not see out, served to illustrate how our ideas of beauty are formed and it forced people to question exactly what they thought was beautiful.

Here is the distinction I think, between pushing boundaries and just shocking for the sake of it. McQueen’s runway shows provoked thought, debate and served a wider purpose than just selling clothes. His shows were narratives that brought important issues into the public sphere for wider debate. In contrast, the DSquared2 show was unashamedly about creating a fabulous fashion fantasy, with mental illness as a catalyst. Their show was about creating a spectacle to sell clothes, nothing more. McQueen’s work was so much more than that, and that is why, particularly to me, even when he commandeered the image of a mental asylum and sent models out in head bandages telling them to “act insane”, his work, while shocking, is nevertheless understandable and necessary in the public sphere.

Fashion has a responsibility to be about so much more than just shoes and jackets. Fashion has the power to influence millions of people, and when you have the power to make millions of people think about an issue in society, within reason being outlandish is necessary. McQueen knew this and used his power effectively. Sadly, however, he was unique in his approach, and today’s fashion industry seems to have lost sight of the example he set. Today, even the most personal issues can be played out and pastiched for the entertainment of the fabulous elite, and a problem you may have struggled with your entire life can now be worn by anyone with enough money as a fashion accessory.