A Blog by Dr Carolyn Mair
The way we understand time has fascinated philosophers for centuries and more recently, it has become a topic of interest to cognitive psychologists. One reason for the renewed interest in how we manage time from a psychological perspective is the increasing pressure to be available and on form 24/7. In today’s technologically advanced societies, being busy symbolises economic and social success. Two decades ago, Gleick (1999) cited time pressure and shortage of time as the reason for perceived decline in the quality of American life, particularly family life.
Today there s less time to reflect, to be alone with our thoughts, to plan, to consider, to appreciate and savour. Because so much is available, we’re led to believe that we can have it all. ‘Superhumans’ are celebrated for being able to balance work, life, fun and leisure seemingly effortlessly, but reality can tell a different story.
Research has found that people who often feel rushed are more likely experience lower levels of well-being as reported on life satisfaction and happiness scales. In addition, Roxburgh (2004) found that the subjective experience of high time pressure is significantly and positively associated with depression among both men and women.
Despite awareness of the time-pressured environment across the fashion industry, many young people are keen to work long hours for little pay as runners, interns and assistants to fashion designers. A career in the fashion industry is often considered glamorous and exciting, and indeed it can be. However, although meeting the demanding challenges can be exhilarating and rewarding, the relentless fast pace, exacting demands and competitive nature of the industry can take their toll on physical and mental health.
While the length of time between fashion cycles is shrinking, the work demanded for each collection remains stable. As noted previously, the pressure to produce more in less time is a contributory to stress-related physical and psychological ill health including anxiety, depression, self-harm, illegal substance dependency, eating disorders and even suicide. Indeed, we are familiar with news reports of fashion designers and models experiencing a range of mental health problems.
Part of the issue is the ephemeral nature of fashion. Received wisdom tells us that when something is ‘in fashion’, it’s no longer fashionable. Fashion changes. It must be avant garde, transient and fleeting, synonymous with a butterfly or a day lily. The transience of fashion is accepted and now demanded in part as a result of our reduced attention span and increasing our need for stimulation. To meet these demands, designers need to produce more in less time while maintaining their own high standards and available 24/7. Brands now need to create more collections each season, with each better than the last, and surpass their competitors’ offerings to meet consumer demands. The only way this can be achieved is through working more hours.
The typical working week in the UK and rest of Europe is 35 to 40 hours per week. The ‘working time directive’ explained on Gov.uk’s website states “You can’t work more than 48 hours a week on average - normally averaged over 17 weeks.” But can opt out of this for specific reasons. In addition, you may have to work more than 48 hours a week on average if you work in a job where 24-hour staffing is required; in the armed forces, emergency services or police; in security and surveillance; as a domestic servant in a private household; as a seafarer, sea-fisherman or worker on vessels on inland waterways; where working time is not measured and you’re in control, e.g., you’re a managing executive with control over your decisions. If you’re under 18, you can’t work more than 8 hours a day or 40 hours a week. Yet most designers, their assistants and interns work more than 48 hours per week, especially when preparing collections. This is likely to be a contributory factory in the lifestyles some designers adopt. A study from 2015 published in the Lancet reported that employees exceeding this recommendation were more likely to consume harmful levels of alcohol.
Jean Paul Gaultier blamed the frenetic pace of overseeing 32 collections a year for Dior and his own eponymous label for his poor mental health: "I was emotionally, spiritually, physically, mentally bankrupt. Relying on drink and drugs to stop the voices in my head”. The designer, Marc Jacobs has been in rehab twice, “I had been running around with models, stylists, fashion people, and I would spend nights drinking and partying.” John Galliano, who was fired from Dior for his racist rant, admitted to downing bottles of vodka and taking pills regularly to help him switch-off. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Galliano said “I had all these voices in my head, asking so many questions. I was afraid to say no, I thought it showed weakness... I was going to end up in a mental asylum or six feet under.” One of the most famous British designers, the late Alexander McQueen (1969-2010), was found dead in his flat after taking a mixture of cocaine, sleeping pills and tranquilizers. Although he was reported to have been suffering from anxiety and depression for at least three years following the suicide of one of his closest friends, the designer Isabella Blow, McQueen’s workload was believed to have had a direct effect on his mental state. After two previous attempts, and the death of his mother in 2010, McQueen took his own life. Tragically, this is outcome is not rare within the fashion industry. Another high-profile designer, L’Wren Scott, who started her career as a model in Paris before moving to California and launching her fashion collections took her own life in 2014 following a period of depression.
In June 2018, designer Kate Spade took her own life. The media were quick to focus on the public shock of this tragedy as Kate Spade appeared to have everything. Psychologist, Dr John Draper, Director of the US National Suicide Prevention Lifeline service was quoted as saying, "It's not really about a person's circumstances. In some ways a highly successful person can even feel trapped because everything seems perfect - they think nobody will understand or believe that they have a problem."
Some designers have the capacity to take stock and step back. Alber Elbaz, formerly of Lanvin told British Vogue, “I don’t understand this marathon of fashion…you start to understand why some designers do strange things… you have to find a way of dealing with it all.” Some designers have decided to adopt a more measured strategy. To have time to reflect, the designers, Viktor & Rolf now design only couture, not ready to wear and the late Azzedine Alaïa withdrew from fashion weeks, showing his collections only when they were ready. However, not all designers are sympathetic. Karl Lagerfeld sees no need to slow down. He argues,“If you are not a good bullfighter, don’t enter the arena. Fashion is a sport now: You have to run.”
Recently there have been strong efforts made throughout society to try and break these taboos about emotional struggles and mental health. Sadly, the punishing pace of the fashion industry doesn’t only take its toll on designers and their workforce, models also feel the force and now they are starting to speak out. French model, Victoire Dauxerre’s book warns young women of the pitfalls of modelling based on autobiographical experiences of eating disorders as a result of being told to lose weight. Dauxerre claims she was “destroyed psychologically” by her experience of modelling and would feel dehumanised when she was not referred to by name or even looked in the eye by designers, hair and makeup artists. Other models have also spoken out.
Adwoa Aboah and Cara Delavigne have spoken out on social media about their mental health and battle with depression. Delevigne said "I suffer from depression and was a model during a particularly rough patch of self-hatred. I am so lucky for the work I get to do, but I used to work to try and escape and just ended up completely exhausting myself. I am focusing on filming and trying to learn not to pick apart my every flaw. I am really good at that. ”
It’s not easy to attribute cause or effect as it is unclear whether the industry attracts those with existing mental problems or whether it creates them. This is highlighted in an interview with Dazed magazine, a male model is quoted as saying "I’d say the effect my job has had on my mental and emotional wellbeing has been the single biggest thing I’ve had to contend with since I started modelling, three years ago. I’m not suggesting that my job or the industry itself are to blame, but they’ve played a firm hand in exacerbating existing issues”.
But none of this is new. In 2007, a study comparing the wellbeing of models with the general population 56 models with 53 young people in different occupations by Meyer et al., published in the Journal of Positive Psychology found that models reported lower levels of happiness, psychological fulfilment and feelings of competence than their counterparts. The authors, two of whom had been fashion models, found that despite their earning power and status as icons of beauty. Models reported feeling that their lives were out of their control as they were ordered about by clients, used as clothes horses and valued for their looks rather than their skills. This fuelled their obsession with weight, dieting and the quest for size zero. "The industry needs to ensure their working conditions do not undermine their psychological well-being.”
The British Fashion Council’s Model Health Inquiry (2007) reported that the model industry “is peopled by young and potentially vulnerable workers – the majority of them women – who are self-employed and do not have adequate support. For many, their careers are short, and they endure working conditions that are damaging to their health”. It advised that models participating in London Fashion Week should provide a medical certificate attesting their good health from doctors on an accredited list of medical experts with expertise in recognising eating disorders. In addition, the report argued that a models’ health education and awareness programme should be established to teach industry partners how to identify and advise models with eating disorders, provide peer and online support for models, parents, agencies and casting directors supplemented by a telephone help line. Furthermore, models should also have access to a counsellor. As a result of the enquiry, Erin O’Connor, one of the world’s top models set up the Model Sanctuary, a space during fashion week where models could seek advice from nutritionists and psychotherapists. Sadly, due to lack of funding, the Model Sanctuary closed in 2012.
Where are we now? What progress has been made? How is the fashion industry addressing the crisis in mental health?