(Un)fashionable Illness

Lesley Thulin //

When VICE Magazine published a fashion spread that depicted reenactments of famous women writers’ suicides in its 2013 Women in Fiction issue, it was met with outrage. Some critics described “Last Words” as “almost breathtakingly tasteless,” while others chalked it up to “slouching indifference and sloppiness.” VICE’s own last words on the photographs, which featured models portraying Elise Cowen, Iris Chang, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Dorothy Parker, Sanmao, Sylvia Plath, and Virginia Woolf moments before, during, or after their deaths (or, in Parker’s case, suicide attempt), came in the form of a statement to readers, apologizing for the content and announcing its removal from their website:

“Last Words” is a fashion spread featuring models reenacting the suicides of female authors who tragically ended their own lives. It is part of our 2013 Fiction Issue, one that is entirely dedicated to female writers, photographers, illustrators, painters, and other contributors.

The fashion spreads in VICE magazine are always unconventional and approached with an art-editorial point-of-view rather than a typical fashion photo-editorial one. Our main goal is to create artful images, with the fashion message following, rather than leading.

“Last Words” was created in this tradition and focused on the demise of a set of writers whose lives we very much wish weren’t cut tragically short, especially at their own hands. We will no longer display “Last Words” on our website and apologize to anyone who was hurt or offended.

—VICE

Despite the statement’s insistence on the “artfulness” of the images, the scant captions accompanying the spread—one of which specifies the brand of tights the model portraying Sanmao is fastening into a noose—suggest the conjunction of fashion and illness. This relationship gained traction during the eighteenth century, which saw the rise of England’s middle class and the beginnings of capitalism, resulting in the glamorization of certain types of mental illness.

Although the pairing might seem surprising, the notion of fashionable disease has existed for centuries. The Black Death, which decimated nearly two thirds of Europe’s population, finds countless afterlives in literature and painting, from Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron (c. 1349-53) to Pieter Bruegel’s “The Triumph of Death” (1562). While the bubonic plague certainly lacked positive connotations, it became a fashionable disease insofar as it denoted illness’s influence on trends in clothing, medicine, and art (O’Connell and Lawlor 491).

Fashionable diseases readily lend themselves to representation, and those with positive overtones—like melancholy and related disorders—often exist within a medicalized discourse that “stresses the benefits of the condition” (Lawlor 26). As an early modern malady whose pathology resembles that of what is now identified as depression, melancholy and its cognates, such as nervous distemper, hysteria, and hypochondria, have long indexed cultural capital. In the eighteenth century, for instance, melancholy primarily affected members of fashionable society, which is to say the bourgeoisie, and indicated their distinctive capacity for sensibility.

But the premium placed on these disorders came with a price. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), an epistolary novel whose titular character dies by suicide at the height of his despair over the love triangle in which he is entangled, gave name to the “Werther effect.” Coined by sociologist David Phillips, the Werther effect denotes the predisposition to die by suicide “under the compulsion of imitation rather than for individual motivations” (Siebers 15). Owing its name to a cluster of readers’ suicides that occurred after the publication of Goethe’s novel, the phenomenon is still being observed in contemporary culture.

Although eighteenth-century melancholy implied a certain class status, it did not manifest identically in men and women. Hysteria was coded as feminine; and hypochondria, masculine. Etymologically linked to the uterus—the supposed seat of the former—hysteria rendered women “disordered, inconstant, [and] precarious” (Mullan 208). Hypochondria, on the other hand, allegedly originated below men’s ribs and assumed a more exalted association with writers and intellectuals. Predictably, many of these thinkers, like James Boswell and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, would enter the predominantly white, Anglophone, and male literary canon.

Despite the VICE spread’s seeming inversion of the male-female/hypochondria-hysteria dichotomy through its spotlight on women writers, “Last Words” raises troubling questions about women’s relationship to commodity culture. Why are dead or dying, abject women being used to sell clothing? As the Poetry Foundation succinctly put it, “Women know the commodity fetish object grind.”

Woolf, whose portrait in “Last Words” alludes to her drowning in the River Ouse, was all too familiar with it, as she openly struggled to conform to the Victorian ideal of the “angel in the house”—the exemplary wife and mother who embodied virtue and obedience—that haunted the twentieth century. In “Professions for Women,” a 1942 address to the Women’s Service League, she describes one of her greatest professional barriers: “Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer” (Woolf n.p.). Although Woolf “killed her in the end,” she reports that “the struggle was severe” (n.p.). Why, then, restage the death of the woman writer to celebrate this accomplishment?

Works Cited
Lawlor, Clark. “Fashionable Melancholy.” Melancholy Experience in Literature of the Long Eighteenth Century: Before Depression, 1660-1800. Palgrave MacMillan, 2011. 25-53.
Mullan, John. Sentiment and Sociability: The Language of Feeling in the Eighteenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.
O’Connell, Anita, and Clark Lawlor. “Fashioning Illness in the Long Eighteenth Century. Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 40.4 (2017): 491-501.
Siebers, Tobin. “The Werther Effect: The Esthetics of Suicide.” Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal 26.1 (Winter 1993): 15-34.
Woolf, Virginia. “Professions for Women.” The Death of the Moth, and Other Essays. <https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/woolf/virginia/w91d/chapter27.html>.
Photo courtesy of TIME.com.

Content warning: This article discusses suicide and self-harm.
Disclosure: The author worked as an editorial intern at VICE Magazine at the time of the 2013 Women in Fiction issue’s publication and was uninvolved with the production of “Last Words.”

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