I’VE BEEN WORKING AS a stylist for a decade when I hit an emotional breaking point. I grow weary, melancholic and a little resentful with fashion, as an industry, a language, and a repetitive practice of daily choices.
On one of my last shooting days I stand next to the model I’d just dressed when a concerned creative asks me: ‘Didn’t we talk about ‘punk meets tailored suits’ masculinity? Why’d you pull a frumpy tulle skirt over her pants? What’s that skirt even saying?’
I stare back, expressionless.
It’s what I imagine Sartre’s protagonist, Antoine Roquentin, feels in the existential novel Nausea, suddenly repulsed by the immanent nothingness of a rock or a beer glass. ‘…I am not at all inclined to call myself insane, I clearly see that I am not: all these changes concern objects.’ It isn’t me but the clothes, only I am constantly wearing them on my skin, constantly using them to convey abstract ideas and emotions.
Perhaps it’s what any literary narrator might experience, trapped in ‘tormented, endless commentary’ as defined by reclusive French writer Maurice Blanchot. Worse – in restless eternal metaphorisation.
Just like the maddening stickiness of words – ’empty house’ (dust creatures; solitude), ‘pink sunrise’ (fake hopefulness; fruity desserts) – it’s impossible to forget that a puffy, sheer skirt is always also something more.
But I want to forget. To simply wear clothes, not to express myself through my style.1 I wish to escape fashion’s purposeful grip or at least find a soft, quiet place on its outskirts.
I take a leave of absence, announcing that I’ve ‘quit fashion.’ I put my accumulated designer clothes up for sale. I stay home a lot in my pyjamas. I walk over to my therapist four times a week in an array of the softest fleece house robes and sweatpants. Leaving my house, I won’t always brush my teeth, but I don’t mind some toothpaste on my face, left on as acne cream. I have a flash vision of bleaching my very dark hair into pristine white and pretending that it happened overnight. I share this vision with a sweet hairdresser I find located on my route to therapy. Just as he warns me, it comes out a dark, stringy, orangey-yellow, mess. ‘I look like a madwoman,’ I tell him. He doesn’t argue.2
Staring at my reflection, I gesture at the mirror – a small, tired, wave. Standing behind me, I notice, is a ghostly lineage of strange-haired ladies: from agoraphobic poets in white to fading film stars trapped in shiny mirror worlds; reclusive socialites grinning from the windows of ruined mansions to teen celebrities in face-obscuring wigs; from suicidal Ophelia-like beauties in cotton house dresses to homicidal mothers in green face masks.
Sick and tired as we are with being looked at, with the psychic burden of assembling neat and meaningful public selves, here we all are, whether by decision or lack thereof, expressing our revolt on the same surface as we did previously our compliance – our bodies and clothes.
We are fashion’s madwomen.
Not to be confused with fashion’s madmen. The likes of Alexander McQueen or John Galliano, grand geniuses whose delirium manifests in creations made, usually, for an imaginary female figure.
No, I’m talking about women who break down and dress up. Women whose clothed bodies are tasked with mediating between elaborate inner and outer worlds. Women whose deemed fragility and instability are inseparable of our other inherent trait, what film theorist Laura Mulvey called our ‘to-be-looked-at-ness.’3
We are, I’m aware, overwhelmingly white and middle class. I am the outlier, born in the Middle East and of mixed racial heritage. The lineage is one I’ve absorbed rather than inherited. Madness was, for much of history, a privilege of its own.
Like womanhood, it is a complex visceral experience linked to external visibility and the gaze in a Gordian knot. It’s threatening, and so needs to be carefully watched.
Michel Foucault’s historiography Civilisation and Madness (1961) outlines a map of this watchful gaze’s orbit: madness as the societal category of the outcast, re-invented when leprosy ended in the thirteenth century leaving behind remote structures of isolation in need of an ‘otherness’ to fill them; The ‘great confinement’ of the seventeenth century where the mad are locked away with other exiles in hospitals, prisons and workhouses; and the nineteenth-century emergence of specialised institutions and asylums, where insanity is zoomed into, for a closer taxonomy.
In a recent study of nineteenth to twentieth-century dress of mental patients, scholars Nicole Baur and Joseph Melling show how failure to dress hair and body registered as a sign of mental derangement, much more so in women patients than in men.4
‘Erotic, destructive and careless of her dress,’ ‘loose clothing’ and ‘clothes that did not match and with [her] hair streaming loose,’ the admission reports read.
If the body wasn’t confined by proper dress codes, it was externally controlled with uniforms sewn of strong linen, the straitjacket, (invented in 1790 in the French Bicêtre Hospital) and the padded cell room.
Fashion historian Yaara Keydar writes of nineteenth-century photographs of hysterics: ‘Before the attacks, the women are seen fully dressed in tight, tailored dresses, with a tight corset easily recognisable by the silhouette, their waistline emphasised and their hair worn up. In photographs taken during their attacks, however, they are shown wearing white, sheer gowns, stretching in different positions in bed, their hair loose and the curves of their bodies easily discernible.’5 Both in the admission reports and in these black and white photographs, we are almost made to believe that the madwoman aesthetic is what’s revealed underneath women’s proper clothes once we ‘peel’ fashion’s skin off.
But as the category of madness became more immersed in society and views of self-control or its absence were replaced with more subtle notions of agency, this binary division was gradually blurred. In the twentieth century, there were ‘calls for female and male patients […] to have more fashionable garments to wear, bringing them closer to the standards seen outside the walls of the institution.’6
Between the 1950s and the 1990s almost half a million were discharged from American mental hospitals hospitals and the movement of deinstitutionalization was being accepted in most Western countries. Supervision morphed into the dialogue-like ‘observation’ of the psychoanalyst, amplified by curiosity around the madperson’s creativity, that place where madness looks back at sanity, sees it for what it is.
The idiosyncratic twentieth and twenty-first century aesthetic of female madness, the one of my own legacy, still embodies a dialectic of self-awareness, self-control, composure – and their absence, but in a more nuanced manner. Fashion is no longer thought of as what hides our true, perhaps mad, nature, nor does it necessarily ‘straighten’ (both externally and internally) us into sociality. It is now the realm in which we are supposed to express our singular subjectivity,7 deranged as it may be. Today’s madwoman’s rich visual vocabulary acts as an integral part of culture, not isolated on its outside.
According to psychoanalyst and philosopher Julia Kristeva, the aesthetic of madness stems from a unique relationship to language This isn’t a deliberate decision of rebellion, but an inability to make sense; to forget the inherent arbitrariness of the word/meaning structure.
In her book Black Sun: Depression and Melancholy, Kristeva speaks of melancholy as a ‘linguistic malady,’ diagnosed through fragmented, monotone speech and the depressed’s experience of language as an ‘alien skin.’ This condition may end up in ‘asymbolia’: the total loss of speech and meaning.8
There’s also a luminous glow to this Black Sun: for some, it may be sublimated into rare beauty. The failure (or distressed refusal) to use signs in their ‘normal’ way could create a new poetic language of its own.
Look for example, at Little Edie Beale of Grey Gardens, standing next to me in the hairdresser’s mirror. A cult figure admired by fashion designers, drag queens and vintage lovers, she really is the icon of eccentric style, a combination of ‘madness and aristocracy.’9
Born in Manhattan to a wealthy family in 1917, Edie was known for her style and beauty. In 1936, her social debut was reported – ‘She wore a gown of white net appliquéd in silver and a wreath of gardenias in her hair.’ Sixteen years later, an aspiring actress waiting for her break, she is called to the Grey Gardens mansion in East Hampton to take care of her sick mother, Big Edie, where the two women come to live in a state of financial ruin. It is against the backdrop of white net appliqued with silver, of perfect hairdos like the one of Edie’s cousin Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, that adult Little Edie’s stylistic madness should be appreciated.
Reading about Little Edie one comes across quite a few references to her mental state: ‘oddball,’ ‘delusional,’ ‘wacky dresser,’ even ‘schizophrenic.’ The last one is what ‘some article’ had said about her, as she tells the filmmakers Albert and David Maysles in the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens. ‘No one takes into account how sensitive a person really is,’ she says.
This sensitivity, along with familial and material circumstances, is what led Edie to this existence: living both in and out of society, both away from the public eye and in front of it, enjoying the film crew’s very close gaze. In that in-between place, she played with her sartorial choices – part due to her natural society girl’s flair and part to having no choice at all. She also played with the meaning and function of her garments, covering up her bald head (due to alopecia) with blouses held up with brooches, or wearing her short skirt as a little cape.
In my favourite look from the film, Edie stands outside of her home in a suede military coat, in keeping with that year’s YSL safari trend.
‘You’re dressed for battle,’ we hear one of the film makers say. Her iconic gold brooch is pinning not a silk scarf or even blouse on her head but a light blue towel, perhaps a kitchen towel. Imagine her deciding on that towel that day, knowing she’ll be filmed. Did she grab it off a counter? Dry her bare, non-made up face, and then continue to use it as a head wrap? Did she like the babyish softness on her skin, contrasting the strict silhouette and hard fabric of the coat? Maybe its softness is the quality better suited for her type of battle.
I love how exaggeratedly she carries herself, as if ignoring the existence of the towel-hat or just the opposite – proud of it. She reminds me of psychoanalyst Adam Phillips’ musings on composure.10 Composure, to Phillips, was that idea of a presentable self-collectedness our society relays assumptions of mental health on, without actually acknowledging its centrality. But, he writes, it might be that ‘the ‘pervert’ flirts with his composure; the hysteric simulates its absence; the obsessional parodies it.’ In other words, in itself, this air of composure reveals nothing. It’s the intricate, intimate, relationship we each maintain to it that’s interesting.
The Grey Gardens mansion, empty of staff or objects of monetary value, filled with cats and raccoons and Big Edie’s hoarding, is usually referenced in the media as a ‘vortex of madness’11 driving Little Edie insane. But isn’t it possible that this same reclusive space was what allowed her to cultivate a private poetic language of short capes and towels? To dance, sing, hide away and yet be seen, and outrageously perform her composure.
Not all of us are so lucky as to have such a place.
Another of my favourite madwoman archetypes is the actress Amanda Bynes. A child star from California, Bynes was acting in plays and on television by the time she was seven. A teenager, she became nationally famous, appearing on the Nickelodeon channel. By the early 2000s she transitioned to film, acting in successful romantic comedies.
Then in 2010 Bynes announced taking some personal time off acting, and between 2012 and 2015 was mostly known as a Hollywood ‘breakdown’ icon, going through an ongoing psychotic episode in front of the eyes of both public and media.
She turned to fashion, enlisting in the Fashion Institute of Design and Mechandising in Irvine, California, from which she was later kicked out due to ‘bizzare conduct’ and ‘weed,’ according to the gossip site TMZ. She was manic on Twitter, writing unbearable tweets to Drake, Courtney Love and Rihanna (e.g ‘Chris Brown beat you because you’re not pretty enough’); she was arrested for DUI and drug possession; famously caught throwing out a bong out of her window; started a fire in a stranger’s driveway; accused her father of sexual abuse and then withdrew her accusation, and was placed in involuntary psychiatric hold.
In an Internet list of her ’15 craziest moments,’ many had to do with what the media and public at the time perceived as a misunderstanding of the basic conduct of apparel: the time she wore a lacey bra instead of a sports bra at the gym; the time she spent hours in a store’s dressing room for no apparent reason; her reveal of the cheek-pierced ‘New Amanda’ on Twitter; her huge Hebrew tattoo. Somehow, wearing mostly ‘casual’ clothes, she just did not look casual: wrinkled puffy coats, yoga pants, misshapen baseball caps and an artificial blonde wig. She seemed like a woman whose objects and symbols were losing all sense, being emptied of whatever previous meaning they held as soon as she touched them.
There are two photographs of Amanda Bynes on my desktop titled ‘covers.’ In one she is wearing an oversized white sweatshirt, black sweatpants, and that combination that had since turned cool but for me will always whisper ‘This is all I could bring myself to pull over my feet’: sliders and socks. She’s holding a golden mirrored Louis Vuitton bag, which somehow seems fake. Covering her head and face is what the media called a ‘blanket,’ but is actually a grey paisley scarf, the kind you might buy in a train station and use once, then forget about.
The other photo is only rumoured to be of her. A figure is sitting in a wheelchair being pushed into a Los Angeles hospital. Ghost-like, she’s covered from head to toe in a heavy white sheet (reminiscent of those ‘strong linen’ uniforms). While in the first photo we see most of her body as well as the shape of her sunglasses underneath the grey fabric, in the white sheet photo, no bodily shapes or forms are visible. Only two-and-a-half toes are peeking out, nails painted in black polish.
I am mesmerized by these images. Two different places, or stages, on the spectrum of the fragmented exchange between madness and visibility, meaning, and the appearance of having some sort of choice in regards to what you look like. The inexpensive grey scarf, and even more so, the white blanket, are to fashion, to the image, what silence is to language. Still ‘inside’ of it, of course – even the blankets are still inside of it – as there is no garment which wholly repels meaning and interpretation. But they do afford Bynes temporary inscrutability, a fleeting space between her body and her covers, where she may momentarily withdraw from our gaze.
Not now. Now she rests.
What if the aesthetic of the madwoman isn’t so much an aesthetic as it is a space? Or a spacious relationship with clothes?
I look back at myself, right there in the middle of that mirror, in my dark yellow hair, my radiating Black Sun.
What happened? Had I grown weary of articulating through these strange, empty, not to mention commodified, objects? Tired of the manic need to always compulsively explain what everything is like?
Was I depressed, feeling the signs slipping, no longer signaling what I wanted them to, and really, not wanting them to?
To the watchful outsider my clothes were still signals. One worried colleague dropped by to visit me, and when getting ready to go out for coffee he gently asked – three times – whether I was going to change my clothes first. I wasn’t. Another visitor said he was dying over my new ‘disheveled athleisure’ aesthetic, and wanted to know where I got my hair dyed.
But I found some distance from these signs and their endless commentary, a make-shift safe house. A space inhabited by deliberateness and arbitrariness, by intentionality and non-intentionality. A nook, really, as narrow as that between a wig and a scalp; as soft as a house-robe pocket.
The madwoman’s space is only surface-wound deep. It could fit in the folds of a scarf. It’s an almost imperceptible gap between what you feel and what you think you feel; between what you mean and what you choose, or don’t choose, to express; between your body and your blanket (or is it a cape?); between people’s gaze and opinion of you, and that which they cannot see. A space which allows for this subtle difference: yes, your appearance will probably be a result of what you’re going through, but it won’t necessarily be a reflection of it.
I think of these spaces: The one inside that stretched-out yellow T-shirt encompassing Miranda July in an ever so sad dance scene in her film The Future. The space inside Virginia Woolf’s heavy coat’s pockets, in which she placed rocks as she entered the river Ouse. Of that airy space, the one hoping to appear both pure and un-needy, between Glenn Close’s body and her sensible white clothes in Fatal Attraction. And of the drape of Lindsay Lohan’s grey hoodie, allowing her to finally get some sleep in its embrace, even as she is photographed by paparazzi.
Feminist literary critic Barbara Johnson wrote about what it is to thread together wanting, choosing and acting, for women: ‘Believe that even in my deliberateness I was not deliberate – believe that the agent is not entirely autonomous, believe that I can be subject and object of violence at the same time, believe that I have not chosen the conditions under which I must choose.’12
Let us inhabit the space of the madwoman, give into its aesthetic. Into a choice afforded to us in fashion’s and womanhood’s claustrophobic realm of seemingly abundant yet always over-determined choices.
Let it enfold us, be our unintentional revolt.
Maayan Goldman is a former stylist, a writer and a doctoral student from Tel-Aviv, Israel. She is restlessly searching for subtle ways in which women can get some rest.
I am grateful to Tel Aviv-based fashion writer Sahar Shalev for this notion of fatigue in individualistic style, as well as many others discussed in this text. Our collaboration on a future Non-Fashion exhibition has contributed to my understanding of fashion’s all-encompassing determination, as well as the current need to find a slightly less emphatic space within it. ↩
While this essay aims to raise questions about the aesthetic of the ‘madwoman,’ it is important to note that madness in this context is by no means a clinical term nor, I hope, a perpetuation of a longstanding female stereotype. ↩
L Mulvey, ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,’ 1975. Screen 16 (3): 6 –18 ↩
N Baur & J Melling, ‘Dressing and Addressing the Mental Patient: The Uses of Clothing in the Admission, Care and Employment of Residents in English Provincial Mental Hospitals, c. 1860–1960,’ 2014. Textile History, 45 (2), 145–170, ↩
Y Keidar, ‘Mysteria: Unraveling Hysteria Theory Through Mid- to Late Nineteenth Century Fashion,’ 2015. History of Costume 2, New-York University ↩
Baur and Melling, ibid ↩
Of course one could argue this very possibility (or command) is enough to drive a woman mad. ↩
J Kristeva, Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. Columbia University Press, 1975. ↩
Edith Bouvier Beale’s obituary in The Guardian, Feb 9, 2002. ↩
A Phillips, On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life, Harvard University Press, 1993. ↩
IFC website, ‘5 things You Didn’t Know about the Classic Documentary Grey Gardens’ ↩
B Johnson, Apostrophe, Animation, and Abortion, Diacritics, 16 (1):28, 1986. She is quoting poet Gwendolyn Brooks in the first part of the sentence. ↩