On the one hand, women are pressured to wear what is expected of us: nice girly clothes, sparkly ornaments and make-up. Who doesn't conform is judged. Within rape culture, women victims of sexual harassment are often blamed for what happened. We keep hearing: "Her skirt was too short, her neckline too low, her attire too provocative".
While Society requires women to look nice and to conform to a certain dress code, on the other hand, it also ridicules our relationship with fashion and clothes. Women who follow trends are labelled as superficial and obsessed with frivolous matters. The relationships between women and clothes is often portrayed as unhealthy; maniac, shopaholic, obsessed are some of the recurrent words.
Clothes, however, can be an empowering tool for women. They are not only accessories, but they contribute to build and express identity. What we wear is a personal statement that shapes and articulates our gender, sexuality and culture. We need to shift the topic of the debate on clothes from insane obsession to the reworking of identities and meaningful carriers.
The opening of a new exhibition What IS She Wearing?, at Manchester Art Gallery on the 3rd of March, provided an interesting opportunity to reflect on the meaning of clothes. The artistic installations and performances focused on the relation between clothes and several important themes, such as activism, emotional bounds, abusive experiences, mental health and poetry.
Protest Wedding Dress is an example of giving a new and active role to clothes. Laiya Sailor transforms a wedding dress, by printing words of protest and changing the traditional image and purpose of the dress. The artist's own dress is combined with a head dress/balaclava designed by Beki Rymsza.
Clothes are not only powerful communicative tools, but they also construct identity through memories. The wardrobe is as personal and private as a diary. Past experiences are folded between jumpers, trousers and socks. Some clothes become symbols and talismans to wear on particular occasions. Other outfits make us comfortable with our body on a day-to-day basis.
Stirred Poetry Feminist Collective explored this theme in a great artistic installation and performance: "Through our lives in these threads". They filled a suitcase with clothes that have a special meaning for them or are connected with a past experience. Every dress has a tag with a poem, which explains the emotional bound of the owner with it. There were a significant variety of items, from jogging shorts to prom dresses, from colourful jackets to red lipsticks. Everything has a story to tell, a message to carry, a protest to speak. The visitors were invited to explore by themselves the content of the suitcase but there was also the chance to hear the poems performed.
Harriet Williamson brought to life an interesting artistic project on the theme of the wardrobe and memories, I Used To Sit In McDonalds To Watch Other People Eat. This time, the wardrobe is not only a metaphor, but it is real. Some of her clothes are sewn together with her diary entries. Thus, the visitor can literally read the experiences and traumas told by clothes. Inside the wardrobe, clothes are in conversation with one another. They talk about tough times of Borderline Personality Disorder, self-harming, bulimia and anorexia. They also talk about courage, strength and changes. Experiences are shared through clothes and, while touching clothes, the visitor gets closer to those experiences.
Make-up, accessories and hairstyles are equally important within the debate on identity construction. What Is She Wearing? focuses also on these relevant themes. For example, Digital Women's Archive North has put together several diapositives to tell the story of different hairstyles in history. Differences and similarities through several decades exemplify how it has changed women's hairstyles and how they have influenced the concept of gender and identity.
Changes occur not only in hairstyles, but within activism too. Every period in history has seen multiple kinds of protests and campaigns. Through the decades, activism has adapted to circumstances and different necessities. Nail Transphobia, a project by Charlie Craggs, shows that there are several ways of engaging with activism, also by painting nails. The close conversations that this project brings to life can be as effective, if not even more, as shouting slogan in the streets. Tackling transphobia finds expression in different ways, nail design included.
Reflecting on the meaning of clothes, hairstyles, accessories and make-up means reflecting on ourselves. We can deny their importance. We can say that they are frivolous trends. We can forget about their role. However, they are still places to find empowerment, activism and identity articulation. Changes take shape also from them, in history as well as in our private lives. Clothes have stories to tell, messages to carry, protests to speak.
What Is She Wearing? is the first of many events planned for the Wonder Women 2016 festival in Manchester, until 13th March.