‘What Were You Wearing?’ Exhibit Takes Aim At Age-Old Sexual Violence Myth

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In a gallery space on the fourth floor of the University of Kansas’ student union, a powerful art installation aims to shatter the myth that sexual violence is caused by a person’s wardrobe.

“What Were You Wearing?” displays 18 outfits hanging next to 18 rape survivors’ stories about what they had on when they were attacked. T-shirts, exercise clothes, dresses, cargo shorts — they’re all there.

“We want people to be able to see themselves reflected in the installation, in the description, in the outfits,” Jen Brockman, director of the university’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Education Center, told me. “We’re hoping students can see that this narrative they’re fed — that someone’s clothing causes sexual violence — is false.”

The stories were collected from university students around the Midwest, through social media campaigns and rape victim advocacy centers, in notebooks and poster boards displayed on campuses.

The outfits are not the survivors’ actual clothing. Students and faculty donated items based on survivors’ descriptions.

“A black skirt and red sweater,” one description reads. “They were my roommate’s; she let me borrow them for my date. I was so excited. I really liked him. I thought he was a nice guy. But when I said slow down and cried, he didn’t stop.”

Next to a male’s T-shirt and cargo shorts: “It’s funny; no one has ever asked me that before. They ask me if being raped means I’m gay or if I fought back or how I could let this happen to me; but never about my clothes.”

Some of the items are children’s clothing. Brockman said several survivors shared stories of sexual assaults from earlier in their lives, as well as on campus.

“A sundress,” a sign reads, hanging next to a tiny pink, red and white striped dress. “Months later my mother would stand in front of my closet and complain about how I never wore any of my dresses anymore. I was 6 years old.”

The reception on campus has been overwhelmingly positive, Brockman said.

“We’ve had many survivors go through the installation and tell us it feels validating, that they see their own outfits reflected on the wall, that they see it wasn’t their fault,” she said. “We’ve had folks walk through and talk about how they never thought about it like this. We had a couple folks talk to us about how they’ve said, ‘What were you wearing?’ and that it didn’t come from a place of malice, but they can see now what that must have felt like to the person they were speaking to.”