The Fabric of the Mind: Notes on Fashion, Learning Difficulties and Mental Health

Guest post by Bethany Lamont, one of our volunteers.


The straitjackets of Glenside Hospital Museum

To struggle with mental health is as much a visible social deviance as an internal conflict. The crying on public transport, the talking to oneself, the compulsive self destruction, the worried looks. As a neurodiverse person with chronic mental health struggles, who lives outside of able bodied ideals, the question of containment is key, containment with institutions, padded cells, splints, back braces, and of course, historically within the straitjacket.


A mannequin wears a nurse’s uniform at Glenside Hospital Museum

To be an Other suggests there must be a norm, but how to distinguish between the two? The implied authority of the nurses’ uniform (examples of which can be seen in our own collection at Glenside) can be regarded as an example of such border keeping, a fabric line to highlight divisions between ‘them’ (the patients) and ‘us’.


Still of Ricky Gervais playing the character ‘Derek’

In popular culture we have figures of fun such as Ricky Gervais’ Derek, with his ‘ugly’ sweaters and carefully combed hair, a character who has been interpreted by some as a mocking portrayal of those of us who fall outside of neurotypical ideas.


Hadley Freeman’s Ask Hadley column, February 2013

Whilst, within feminist circles, writers such as Hadley Freeman have criticized women for their childlike’ fashion choices, such as favouring fluffy fabrics and animal face hats. Though questions of the infantilizing of (neurotypical able bodied) women certainly has a rich history; the question of how we, as neurovariant individuals, find comfort in clothes when navigating a hostile and often unfriendly world, does not strike me as prime think piece fodder.  For instance, I have a fluffy teddy bear jumper that (though lying outside of respectable neurotypical borders and mainstream feminist ideals) brings me great security!

Yet, mental health, neurodiversity and disability is not just simply vilified. In its frequent misunderstandings and misrepresentations it is also prone to romanticism, and, consequently capitalization, in the business of fashion.

It lives in the tragic muse model, of the beautiful young (white) girl whose supposedly aesthetically appealing illness serves as a creative catalyst for the (male) genius:


John Everett Millais’ Ophelia

We can watch it in ‘scary/sexy’ TV shows:


FX American Horror Story promotional poster


Buy it from misjudged designers:


Urban Outfitters controversial depression crop tee shirt

And admire it in ‘heroin chic’ inspired photo spreads:


Steven Meisel, Vogue Italy, 2007

But perhaps the cruelest product of this appropriation is that now any model of visibility is dismissed as a simple fashion trend by neurotypical critics. This ranges from celebrities who choose to speak of their mental health struggles being regarded as ‘attention seeking’, to young autistic and mentally ill people being dismissed as ‘self diagnosing’, ‘band wagon jumpers’ or fetisishing their struggles.

Visibility has always been intrinsic to how we view those outside of able bodied and neurotypical ideas, from the windows of bedlams to the freakshows of the Victorian era, and, to truly dismantle this system, it is necessary to realize how the clothes that contain us, choose to inform our stories, and our histories.