Art Exhibit Powerfully Answers The Question 'What Were You Wearing?'

The installation proves that clothing has nothing to do with sexual assault.

“What were you wearing?”

It’s a question people ask survivors of sexual violence all too often; a question wrought with victim-blaming and an implication that, maybe, the survivor could’ve prevented their assault if they had worn something less revealing, less sexy. 

A powerful art exhibit currently on display at the University of Kansas aims to debunk this myth. The exhibit titled “What Were You Wearing?” features 18 stories of sexual violence and representations of what each victim was wearing at the time of their assault. The outfits include a bikini, a young boy’s yellow collared shirt, a sexy red dress and a T-shirt and jeans. 

A photo of the art exhibit "What Were You Wearing?" at the University of Kansas. 

The art project was created in 2013 by Jen Brockman, the director of KU’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Education Center, and Dr. Mary A. Wyandt-Hiebert, who oversees all programming initiatives at the University of Arkansas’ rape education center. The installation has been featured at several other schools since 2013, including University of Arkansas and University of Iowa.

Brockman told HuffPost that the main goal of “What Were You Wearing?” is to promote awareness about sexual violence and to combat victim-blaming. 

“Participants can come into the gallery and see themselves reflected in not only the outfits, but also in the stories,” she said. “To be able to create that moment in this space where they say, ‘Wow I have this outfit hanging in my closet,’ or ‘I wore this this week.’ By doing this we could hopefully reveal the myth that if we just avoid that outfit then we’ll never be harmed or that somehow we can eliminate sexual violence by simply changing our clothes.” 

What were you wearing? "A swimsuit. We had been canoeing at the river all day. It had been a really fun time. Then they came in to my tent when I was trying to change clothes."

The installation collected 40 stories of sexual violence, but only 18 are currently on display at the University of Kansas. Brockman said the stories were collected from college and university students. 

Students shared their stories in different ways, including in-person interviews, anonymous forums such as journals displayed in past galleries where survivors could write down their stories, and online using hashtags. Each outfit was donated by university students to replicate the outfit survivors described in the stories collected.

Brockman told HuffPost the reactions to the gallery have been overwhelmingly positive. 

“When survivors come through, what we hear expressed often is validation because they’ll share with us: ‘This was my outfit. What’s hanging on this wall right now is what I was wearing,’ or ‘That’s my story. That story is just like what happened to me,’” Brockman said. “It’s not the clothing that causes sexual violence, it’s the person who causes harm. Being able to find that peace for survivors and that moment of awareness for communities is the real motivation behind the project.”

Scroll below to see photos from the powerful “What Were You Wearing?” art exhibit. 

What were you wearing? "My favorite yellow shirt, but I don't remember what pants I was wearing. I remember being so confused and just wanting to leave my brother's room and go back to watching my cartoons."
A photo of the "What Were You Wearing?" gallery at the University of Kansas.
What were you wearing? "Khakis and a dress shirt. I had to give a presentation that day in my communications class. They took my clothes at the hospital during my rape exam. I'm not sure what happened to them."
What were you wearing? "A sun 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 six years old."
A photo of three outfits for one story. Brockman told HuffPost one woman was assaulted three times throughout her life, so she included three outfits for her story. 
What were you wearing? "I missed a couple days of work after it happened. When I told my boss, she asked me this question. I said 'A T-shirt and jeans, bitch, what do you wear to a basketball game?' I walked out and never came back."