What Not to Wear: Asylum Edition

“You’re gonna have to put these on now, sorry this is the smallest size we have for now. When you get upstairs, we’ll check if they have any smaller sizes.”

I had surrendered. It was time to trade my street clothing and along with it my freedom and dignity for the obligatory bright yellow uniform.

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No, I was not in jail. I was voluntarily checking into a psychiatric hospital/ detox center. Yet the obligatory psych patient uniform bore a striking resemblance to inmate’s jumpsuits.

“You know, yellow really isn’t a flattering shade for my pale skin tone, I look better in blues and pastels, don’t you think? This color sorta washes me out,” I said.

I know this because my friend who sat with me through the whole excruciating process, verified it, along with the erratic notes that I kept on the hospital’s stationary.  Yes. The hospital has stationary. And yes, I am the kind of person who writes shit down. This was the first time that this happened, but it wouldn’t be the last.

The nurse wasn’t amused by the jokes of a mental patient. She shoved my street clothes into a sturdy white bag that said, “PATIENT BELONGINGS.”

It was curious as to why I had to wear an outfit that resembled a prison jumpsuit for voluntarily checking into get help. I was just told it was “policy.”

Although it may seem vain or vapid to begin the series of Off Her Rocker blogs with fashion, I thought it would be an interesting way to examine the ways in which mental health care has in some ways, not evolved and even regressed.

In 1895, The Fergus Falls Daily Journal reported that the administration at the MN Asylum, “discouraged patients from dressing alike, thereby distinguishing them from prison convicts.”  (Via archives obtained at Ottertail County Historical Society).

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Photo via CBS rare photos from mental hospitals late 1890s.

Let that sink in for a minute. 125 years ago, “mental patients” were distinctly being encouraged to wear their own unique clothing because it would help them feel more like themselves and not be stereotyped.

After all, clothing is a valuable way of self-expression and identification. Plus, my mom is after all a fashion consultant so it seemed fitting. Sorry, I couldn’t resist. I wanted to make lots of bad puns to ease or way into the topic of mental illness.

Although they were as tattered and worn as I felt, I remember feeling shiny and relieved when I got to change into my skinny jeans and band t-shirt. They were mine and I didn’t need a rubber band to hold them up like I did with the yellow ensemble. I was happy too to trade the slipper socks with my converse all stars even though they too were sans shoelaces which were considered contraband.

What not to wear: psych ward edition courtesy hospital pamphlet: drawstrings, belts, shoelaces, jewelry.

Being that I was away from home and going through an effing breakdown, I thought I could be at least comfortable and dare I say fashionable, while doing it.

But for real, even back in the late 1890s and early 1900s, visionaries realized that taking care of one’s appearance, self-expression, and learning to sew one’s own clothes could be a valuable way for improving mental health. 

A hospital administrator’s wife even started a sewing circle and a sewing room was opened in the early 1900s. Although they were allowed and encouraged to wear their own clothing from home, many of the patients even sewed their own clothing and helped sew for patients who had  brought little clothing from home. Patients who tore or ripped their clothing on purpose had to wear clothing of heavy denim, only for practical reasons.

I’d rock a Canadian Tuxedo any day over yellow scrubs.

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Beauty parlor in Fergus Falls State Hospital for the Insane, circa 1926. Photo courtesy Ottertail Historical Society Archives

In fact, they even opened a beauty parlor at the Fergus Falls State Hospital for the Insane in 1926 that offered hair styling, manicures, and facials. Mrs. Blanche L. La Du who was the only woman member of the State Board of Control for Insane Asylums, said, “Next to occupational therapy we believe this experiment in which personal hygiene is our most successful means of restoring mental health to our women patients at Fergus Falls.. .Any normal woman experiences a pleasant mental reaction from a visit to the beauty shop: in this monotonous life on an institution, the reaction is all the stronger.”

In an article about “Beauty Culture at the Hospital,” the Fergus Falls Daily Journal reports that the beauty salon took a while to catch on because patients had not been used to such luxuries and had their “vanity destroyed through misfortune.” A trained “beauty culturist” was in charge of the parlor and even trained patients in how to be beauty assistants.

I realize the language and stereotypes for women are antiquated. Mrs. La Du’s evaluation of women’s mental health based on adherence to certain beauty ideals seem very outdated and kitschy now, but I think considering this was over 100 years ago she had her compass pointed the right direction.

It is far different from when a male psychiatrist asked me why my nail polish was chipped in a psych eval or when another (who luckily I never had the pleasure of having) asked some of my fellow female patients, “You’re a pretty girl- why do you drink?”

It is of my professional opinion that if this doctor was so damned concerned with our appearances, he should have opened a damned beauty salon on the psych ward just like Mrs. La Du. After all- Missy Elliot said,  “If you a fly gal, get your nails done. Get a pedicure. Get your hair did.”  And you can bet we’re fly gals who’d rather have our nails done and sew our own clothes than wear yellow scrubs and not be allowed make-up.

Coming up next: Burning straight jackets, how the MN hospital for the insane was like a commune, how accurate are movie’s depictions of insane asylums & MORE.

 

 

 

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