Fashion magazines have had to change significantly during the coronavirus pandemic. Traditional photo shoots have been halted, meaning that the covers coming through to newsstands now look notably different to the usual glossy covers we once knew, where top models and celebrities would stare back at us.
Many publishers have used the opportunity to come up with new creative and artistic concepts, enlisting artists and illustrators to fill the void. The August issue of British Vogue, for example, features images of 14 British landscapes on its cover, with one edition painted by the artist David Hockney, and another photographed by Tim Walker. Its July issue, and Grazia's 28th March issue, turned attention away from shopping, to instead celebrate the work of NHS staff and key workers during the pandemic.
Vogue Portugal’s concept, however, appears to have missed the mark for audiences. For its July / August edition, the magazine has created what it calls ‘The Madness Issue’ - one version features an image of a woman naked in a bath, while nurses pour water over her, shot by photographer Branislav Simoncik.
While some commenters praised the cover for ‘demystifying’ the stigma around mental health treatments, the reaction on social media has been largely negative, as commenters accused the fashion magazine of glamourising and perpetuating stereotypes about mental illness and psychiatric hospitals, for the sake of creating a fashion image.
The old-fashioned depiction of psychiatric hospital treatment, many argued, might prevent people who need help from seeking it, while the concept as a whole does nothing to challenge the way in which treatments have always been portrayed in popular culture.
The Portuguese model Sara Sampaio, who has appeared on the cover of Vogue Portugal several times, as well as multiple international editions of the magazine, wrote on social media: ‘This kind of photo should not be representing the conversation about mental health! I think it’s very bad taste!’
THE MADNESS ISSUE.— Vogue Portugal (@VoguePortugal) July 2, 2020
It’s about love.
It’s about life.
It’s about us.
It’s about you.
It’s about now.
It’s about health.
It’s about mental health. #themadnessissue It’s about time.
Pre-order the july/august issue at https://t.co/7vQX0f1u8F pic.twitter.com/3PX5nUWOPb
The timing of the issue, released when tackling mental health issues has been even more difficult for many around the world living in lockdown, also seems thoughtless. Back in April, Vogue Portugal's editors were criticised again when they released their 'Freedom on Hold' concept covers, making reference to the international lockdowns in place with an image of two models kissing through masks. Other July cover designs released to tie in with the 'Madness' concept include a photograph of hands holding a human heart and an image of a woman being photographed against a fake beach backdrop.
It’s not the first time a fashion brand has come under fire for attempting to deliver a creative concept based on stereotypes around psychiatric health treatment. At Alexander McQueen’s controversial 2001 catwalk show, supermodels Erin O’Connor and Kate Moss were sealed in a padded box, wearing medical headdresses with their exquisitely embellished dresses, miming an attempt to escape.
In September 2019, Gucci presented a catwalk show in Milan, which saw models wearing straitjackets emerge on a conveyor belt, in place of a catwalk. One model, Ayesha Tan Jones, protested against the concept and stood with their hands raised. The message “mental health is not fashion” was written on their palms.
‘It is hurtful and insensitive for a major fashion house such as Gucci to use this imagery as a concept for a fleeting fashion moment,’ they said of the decision. ‘It is in bad taste for Gucci to use the imagery of strait jackets and outfits alluding to mental patients’.
Gucci designer Alessandro Michele later described how he wanted to start a social media campaign to encourage fans of Gucci to have "an open conversation on how clothes can define our identity and tell our story."
The response from followers seemed to be two-sided; acknowledging Tan Jones' disagreement, but also Michele's right as an artist to express what he felt.