From The Reminissue (read it online here)
In her 1978 book Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag wrote about the popular mythologies surrounding two diseases: tuberculosis and cancer. At the time, the writer was undergoing treatment for breast cancer, suddenly finding herself a citizen of ‘the kingdom of the ill’. Dissatisfied with the feeling of isolation which attitudes towards the disease brought to her, she sought to deconstruct the way illness is perceived and mythologised by society.
In her discussion of tuberculosis, or ‘consumption’, a disease which became strangely iconic during the 18th and 19th centuries, she explores the tendency for society to ‘aestheticize death’. Tuberculosis became known as a ‘disease of passion’, bewilderingly linked with both sexual vigour and sexual repression, either way ‘thought to make the sufferer sexy’ in their state of waifish pallour, subject to bursts of libidinous energy as well as extreme tiredness and languor. The signs of the illness, which could render the sufferer both drained of blood and flushed with it, were identified with signs of sexual arousal, and slowly, tuberculosis became symbolic of romance and passion, utilised in literature, theatre, and opera.
Associated with the lungs, despite the damaging effect it had on many other parts of the body, it remained synonymous with ‘breath, life’, and the soul. As Sontag observes, it is ‘the romantic disease which cuts off a young life’, allowing them to transcend the trappings of the mortal body and ascend into the realms of the spiritual.
After many decades, during which mythology surrounding the disease snowballed and became almost independent of the horrors in which it originated, the ‘consumptive appearance’ found its way into mainstream fashion. It became a sign of fragility, of wealth, of elegance, and of a particularly languorous sexual energy. Camille Saint-Saens wrote, in 1913, of ‘a time when good health was not chic’; later, the Duchess of Windsor remarked ‘One can never be too rich. One can never be too thin’. It’s easy to see how this malnourished aesthetic has endured even in the 21st Century, with fashion’s preference for extremely skinny models – which Sontag terms as a ‘cult of thinness’ – and, in particular, hollow cheeks and jutting hip-bones covered with ghostly pale skin.
‘slowly, tuberculosis became
symbolic of romance and
Sweat, a fluid linked to both fever and sex, also finds its way into countless fashion photographs, models dripping with an inordinate amount of the stuff, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, unsure if they’re beckoning us closer or asking for help. We might think, also, about the ‘heroin chic’ trend which pervaded the fashion world during the mid-1990s, morbidly inspired by the look of severe drug addicts, by the dark rings around their eyes and their skeletal figures. At the same time, attitudes towards heroin were changing; its price dropped and it became more acceptable recreationally, increasing in popularity as the AIDS crisis of the 1980s – which heightened awareness of the dangers of sharing hypodermic needles – was beginning to fade in the collective memory.
It’s hard to consider fashion photography which plunders images of illness without sensing the dark current which bubbles beneath them, glamorising illness and fetishizing poor health. In some instances, trends have veered to other end of the spectrum, promoting a suntan so drastic and unnaturally orange that skin looks ready to bubble and fry.
Inspired by the words of Susan Sontag, and by fashion’s frequent preference for the extreme, we decided to create our own ‘Kingdom of the Ill’, transforming our model Charlotte into three grotesque characters, progressing from the consumptive Victorian angel to the over-botoxed WAG of the 21st century. We’re not sure Sontag would approve, but we hope that you do.