We often think of fashion as a fun distraction from the stress of daily life. Most fashion designers celebrate lighthearted youth, beauty and vitality, with brands claiming to shave 10 years off of your appearance using only a well-tailored dress or suit. Only avant-garde designers explore the messier, darker sides of life.
Terminal illness ties do the latter, as they remind us all that we are all just one illness or accident away from death. But rather than cowering away from this fact, they ask us to embrace it and even laugh about it.
The neckties are the brainchild of artist Bethany Shorb, who works for the experimental men’s accessory brand Cyberoptix Tie Lab. Her designs are ultra-contemporary; she never uses the same tired patterns of traditional ties. Some of her most powerful and controversial works explore the darker aspects of life.
For instance, her “Terminal Illness” tie features a stylized version of the swine flu molecule. At first, it looks like a simple, pretty design that you might see a fashionable lawyer wear to the office. But when you look more closely, you realize that the patterns are actually flu molecules, carefully placed to look like an airport terminal map from above.
Shorb says she got the idea while traveling during the peak of the swine-flu panic. Originally, she wanted to design a necktie around airport maps because she thought they were beautiful. However, when she saw all of the swine flu warnings while going through airport security, she switched gears and decided to craft a “deadlier” version of the tie.
The terminal illness tie represents both panic and the suddenness of death. She first released it at the height of the swine flu epidemic, when people’s nerves were most frayed. To add to the sense of danger, every tie came with a face mask.
By placing the molecules in a pattern resembling an airport terminal, Shorb reminds us that even a simple trip to the airport could result in a life-threatening disease, and that nowhere is entirely safe. She also creates a nice play on words by juxtaposing airport terminal and terminal illness.
Although Shorb’s terminal illness ties seem somewhat bleak, they are actually more lighthearted and educational than morose. They remind us that all of our technological advances can’t protect us from illness, and that sometimes our technological advances (such as big, sprawling airports) make things worse. She looks at the issue as a scientist would, asking us to replace panic with cool-headed detachment. There’s a tongue-in-cheek quality to the design that allows us to smirk when we see it, rather than feeling disturbed.
Black humor is a common coping mechanism when people think of death, and Bethany Shorb is a master at it. Some of the company’s other designs include ties sporting a stylized version of the bubonic plague, a scan of brainwaves while someone is experiencing insomnia, a list of chemicals used in warfare and a lifelike print of a spine.
When these serious images are placed on a necktie, they lose some of the their power to inspire fear. In fact, the surreal image of a man wearing a nice suit with the bubonic plague prominently displayed on his chest is enough to make us chuckle a bit.
Shorb’s unusual designs remind us that we can’t always control what happens to us, especially when it comes to disease. But more importantly, they show us that we’re still able to choose how we handle our fear of death.