“What Were You Wearing?” Student-Survivor Art Installation
The “What Were You Wearing?” Survivor Art Installation originated at the University of Arkansas in 2013. Created by Jen Brockman and Dr. Mary Wyandt-Hiebert, the project was inspired by Dr. Mary Simmerling’s poem, What I Was Wearing.
On May 24, 2013, Dr. Wyandt-Hiebert and Ms. Brockman attended a conference hosted by the Arkansas Coalition Against Sexual Assault in Little Rock, Arkansas. The conference packet included the poem What I was Wearing. Dr. Simmerling wrote the poem in the early 2000s and received a registered copyright in 2005.
Deeply moved by the poem, Dr. Wyandt-Hiebert and Ms. Brockman began to brainstorm ways to create a visual representation of the poem during a break at the conference. Throughout June 2013, Dr. Wyandt-Hiebert and Ms. Brockman conceptualized and developed the framework for the Installation. Ms. Brockman contacted Dr. Simmerling during the summer of 2013 and was given permission to utilize her poem in connection with the Installation.
In September 2013, the Student Union Connections Lounge was reserved to host the first “What Were You Wearing?” Survivor Art Installation for Sexual Assault Awareness Month to be held April 2014. From September 2013 and onward, student-survivors at the University of Arkansas voluntarily shared brief descriptions of what they were wearing when they experienced sexual violence via personal interviews with Dr. Wyandt-Hiebert and Ms. Brockman. These descriptions were used to recreate the outfits worn during the assaults. Clothing for the Installation was donated by Peace At home Thrift Store in Fayetteville, Arkansas.
The first “What Were You Wearing?” Survivor Art Installation was displayed at the University of Arkansas March 31-April 4th, 2014.
Dr. Wyandt-Hiebert and Ms. Brockman had worked as sexual violence and intimate partner violence survivor advocates for over a decade when the Installation was created. The Installation was born out of an advocacy lens. The question, “what were you wearing?” was pervasive for most survivors.
Dr. Wyandt-Hiebert and Ms. Brockman wanted to create a project that would place the work of bearing witness to this question’s answer back on the shoulders of the community and humanize the survivor in the answer. To ask the question, “what were you wearing?” cost the questioner nothing, there is no labor in making this statement. However, the survivor must pay dearly in not only their answer; but also, in the burden of self-blame.
The Installation challenges participants to engage with the universal connection we have with clothing and reflect on what gives this specific rape culture myth so much power. To put clothing on is so basic and common, to take that action and conflate it with pain and suffering taints not only the individual outfit for the survivor; but also, calls in to question all simplistic and normal behaviors as dangerous.
The Installation asks participants to understand that it was never about the clothing and the act of shedding those clothes is never enough to bring peace or comfort to survivors. The violation is not simply woven in to the fabric of the material, it is a part of the survivor's new narrative. If only ending sexual violence was as easy as changing our clothes. Instead it requires all of us to evaluate what enabled us as individuals and as a society to ask, “what were you wearing?” in the first place.
The poem "What I Was Wearing" inspired this Installation, but it did not give voice to the question, “what were you wearing?” This myth is one of may pervasive narratives utilized to blame survivors and justify perpetrators. The Installation was not the first or the last to address this specific issues. There are multiple other projects that have addressed this common rape myth.
Recent individuals and projects include; but are not limited to,
Denim Day (1999) www.dvsac.org/denim-day
Jasmeen Patheja (2004) www.jasmeenpatheja.com/blank-noise/
Steve Connell and PAVE (2009) http://pavingtheway.net/what-she-was-wearing/
Salamishah Tillet (2011) www.thenation.com/article/what-wear-slutwalk
Beckie Jane Brown (2013) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xkf07Xs_pCc&list=LLuFRE88N9PRaiWbYSr1KzXw&index=326
Christine Fox (2014) www.oxjane.com/issue/i-am-steenfox-and-i-wrote-the-tweet-what-were-you-wearing
Roy Banwell (2015) www.stillnotaskingforit.org
Kathrine Cambareri (2016) www.katcphoto.com/well-what-were-you-wearing.html
University of Oregon (2019) https://www.forestry.oregonstate.edu/wwyw/
Thank you to all the survivors who have trusted us with their stories. We are honored to share this space with you.
- Jen and Mary
If you are interested in bringing the “What Were You Wearing?” Student-Survivor Art Installation to your campus or community, please fill out our Installation Request form. There is no cost associated with the Installation Packet; however, we do require a partnership with your campus victim/survivor advocacy program or a local victim/survivor advocacy center to host the Installation.