America’s Double Bind: Using Fashion to Discuss our Cultural Schizophrenia

 I might sorta kinda be, just maybe... schizophrenic. I don’t say that to belittle, demean, or be insensitive towards those suffering from the disorder, but hear me out. You might be too.

As a photographer, casting, and visual director for many brands like Public School (whose designers now helm DKNY) and organizations such as the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), my creative path has taken me around the world, and believe it or not, fashion-although a seemingly superficial industry (who needs another pair of jeans?)-has the capacity to reflect our deepest fears and desires.

While researching a title for the mental illness-themed Pyer Moss Fall/Winter runway presentation, I came across the work of cultural anthropologist Gregory Bateson. In the 1950’s, Bateson coined the term “Double Bind”; which he found to be a common occurrence in the childhoods of his adult patients diagnosed as schizophrenic. The double bind recipe goes a little something like this: the parents (usually the mother), give conflicting instructions to their child; one hostile and fueled by anxiety, followed by a conflicting demand to cover up the hostility of the first demand. A simple example: “Don’t be a worthless brat. Get outta here! Go do your homework! ...but only if you want to sweetie, you know Mommy loves you.” There is an innate hostility present, followed by a simulated love to cover the hostility, thereby confusing the child. The signals are mixed. This is made more complex both by the child’s inability to escape, and their inability to communicate about the conflicting parental demands, creating a situation in which no matter what they do, the child cannot win.

Bateson found that this “double bind” resulted in learned patterns of confused thinking and communication, manifesting as three possible defense mechanisms: 1. the child begins to misconstrue all messages as having a hidden meaning (paranoia). 2. they treat all communication as unimportant, thereby laughing it off (hebephrenic). 3. They ignore communication altogether, withdrawing from the world around him/her, and focusing on their internal world (catatonic).

Still with me? Good.

The Black experience in America is the ultimate Double Bind; a place were natural born citizens- promised life, liberty and property-live an immigrant experience in the only land they’ve known as home. A place where black culture is praised, commodified, and appropriated, while Black peoples are marginalized and serve as scapegoats for the ills of American society. A land where Top 40 radio has never sounded so Black, yet those reaping the rewards... and awards... look nothing like the originators of said sound. The signals are mixed. Trust me when I say a certain functional schizophrenia has to exist in order to cope with the dissonance of having a Black man in the White House while a Black body lies for 4 hours in the streets of Ferguson.

And we can’t escape. And we can’t talk about it.

Any hint at a racially polarized society, any mutter of “this isn’t really working out for us” and riot gear is pulled out while has-been politicians clamor for soapboxes to decry “reverse racism” and being “anti- police.” A music video reference to tour country’s recent past (events we all saw on our television screens , mind you #noliesdetected), and pop stars get boycotted . Any nod to “What did you mean when you... ?” gets one kicked and spat on at a political rally as your attackers shout “All lives matter!”

Hostility cloaked in simulated love.

It is a difficult space for anyone to inhabit, really, because you lose your bearing for what is real and what is perceived. Everyday, normal interactions trigger learned defense mechanisms: motives are questioned”...is it because I’m Black?” (paranoia); some don’t take any of it seriously, thinking none of this has anything to do with us (hebephrenic); and some withdraw to a safe space-into our own heads, into our own communities, into the pews-paralyzed by interactions and experiences outside of our comfort zone (catatonic). All classic symptoms of sociological schizophrenia.

The rub? Many of our countrymen are caught in a double bind; mentally arrested, and muscling through their daily lives. How is the Newtown mother to get through her day when she wakes up to another mass shooting, while the politician who seduced her vote, nullifies her trust with a vote against gun control? How is the well-educated, socially conscious millennial to push through another unpaid internship, mired in student loan debt, with weak job prospects on the horizon?

But back to those clothes.

I am not big on “right” answers, but man do I love a question, and the Pyer Moss show sought to explore the dissonance and subsequent mental illness created by conflicting demands. What does it feels like to inhabit that space? What can be created when the only place to go, is IN? It was a meditation about the ether between opposites-Trap music was sung by opera singers and musical artists (Erykah Badu) became stylists-purposefully disjointed, and in that space of confusion a certain discordant harmony was found.

“Only out of chaos can a star be born,” says Nietzsche. Well, behold an American galaxy. The toughest and richest elements on earth are formed by intense heat and pressure; carbon, diamonds, oil... even pearls are formed out of coping with an irritating grain of sand, and I am convinced that in that space between conflicting demands and ideas-the twilight of the mind-we find the source of our shared humanity and our magic.

“I’m a blackstar, I’m not a gangstar.” -David Bowie