The first piece in Lilah James’ Moore College of Art senior fashion collection is called “Shame and Guilt.” About 50 yards of black tulle, including a cathedral-style veil, obscure the body. Faint metallic writing, excerpts from the designer’s journal, cover the fabric layers: Shame …. I really tried to be happy…
But what is clear when jumping from look one to look seven is James’ growth and change as a designer and, she says, as a person. The 22-year-old has complex post traumatic stress disorder, the legacy of years of abuse, and this collection is part of her healing.
“I was always very passionate about art, but I didn’t think of it in terms of a healing process until a few professors suggested it,” said James, a scholarship recipient and part of Moore’s competitive Visionary Woman Honors Program who is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in fashion design with a minor in fine arts. “This collection was designed to help me … I went through all of this, but right now, I’m doing great.”
Trauma and recovery may not be typical fashion focuses, but Nasheli J. Ortiz-Gonzalez, chair of Moore’s fashion design department, said she encouraged James to explore the concept even when James worried some might find it offensive.
When James described her collection in class, Ortiz-Gonzalez said, some students cried.
“There’s a lot of stigma around mental health issues,” she said. “People don’t want to talk about it, but we need to talk about it everywhere: on the runways, in the art galleries, in every aspect of our lives.”
Ortiz-Gonzalez personally felt the impact of the dress called “Weight of Depression.” Multiple bands of fabric across the body suggest a straitjacket. Circular copper weights James hand-cut hang from the dress.
“It’s very well-designed and very well-constructed, but you can feel the depression, the physical weight you are carrying that doesn’t belong while on the outside, you look fabulous,” Ortiz-Gonzalez said. “It’s fine art but all of the pieces are very wearable.”
James spent most of her childhood in Northeast Philadelphia and graduated from a South Jersey high school in 2014. As part of her recovery, she has legally changed her first and last names.
Still, she never considered that she had PTSD until she was diagnosed during a hospitalization.
“I pictured it being for soldiers or police officers. I told the doctor that I had never been overseas and she just laughed at me,” James said. “Complex PTSD comes not from one event but it builds up over years. At key stages of mental development … if you’re told awful things since you’re a child, that’s how you see the world.”
James was first inspired to use her struggle in her art while taking a fashion drawing class with interdisciplinary assistant professor Heather Ujiie last year.