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7 January 2014updated 28 Jun 2021 4:46am

Lez Miserable: The growth of depression chic

Increased visibility of mentally ill people can only serve to highlight problems and break taboos, but for the most part this is a stultifying trend.

By Eleanor Margolis

For a while now, I’ve been watching the growth of a macabre trend. Depression chic has been creeping into the mainstream for many years. 2014 marks the twentieth birthday of Prozac Nation, the book that (perhaps inadvertently) transformed a debilitating mental illness into a veritable rock star. I’m not sure the Urban Outfitters “Depression” t-shirt was intended as a celebration of two decades of fluoxetine being fabulous, but it almost seems that way.

In the creative world, depression has always been as ubiquitous as sex and drugs. From Virginia Woolf to Kurt Cobain; literature, art and music are all strewn with breakdowns, burnouts and suicides. But only in the past few years has depression truly made the leap from illness to accessory. In Lars von Trier’s 2011 film, Melancholia, Kirsten Dunst’s portrayal of a clinically depressed woman was both skilful and graphic. Incidentally, Dunst has spoken frankly about her real-life struggle with depression. Similarly, Claire Danes, who plays the bipolar Carrie Mathison in Homeland, has contended with mental illness. Increasingly, depression is understood as something that affects the glamorous. The fashion label “Depression”, who are responsible for Urban Outfitters’ most controversial garment, have capitalised on this. “Hey look – all the cool kids are depressed”.

On the one hand, increased visibility of mentally ill people can only serve to highlight problems and break taboos. It would be cruel of me not to applaud the likes of Danes and Dunst for opening up about their depression, and even more so if I were to suggest that their accounts are disingenuous. And yet, instead of being used to understand and relate to mental illness, these confessionals are being moulded into an extremely damaging aesthetic.

In fashion, problematic trends like “heroin chic” – most famously worn by Kate Moss and Pete Doherty – come and go. Like drug addiction, depression has been glamorised and fetishized into something wearable. And, in a sense, depressives are the new junkies. While we once watched coked-up stars meander in and out of rehab, the mental breakdown has recently become far more of a focus – particularly in young women. Actress Amanda Bynes’s erratic behaviour and public “meltdowns” have rendered her tabloid fodder. While garish headlines reduce Bynes to a jabbering loon, they also (perversely) feed into the concept of depression chic. Young female Hollywood types are almost expected to go through a mental breakdown phase. Last year, depressive tweets by Miley Cyrus led to inevitable and disingenuously concerned speculation about her mental health.

I’ve been familiar with depression since early adolescence. I’ve searched my antidepressant-soothed brain for the best words to describe the illness and the only ones I can come up with for now are “fucking” and “awful.” To see a condition that takes lives reduced to a word on a t-shirt is almost more bizarre than it is upsetting. I wonder if a t-shirt with the word “cancer” on it would have made it into a high street shop. Urban Outfitters may have pulled their offensive t-shirt, but I have a feeling that depression chic is far from over.

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