After going viral last fall, ‘What Were You Wearing?’ exhibit returns to KU; display challenges victim blaming

A set of Army fatigues hangs on the wall for the "What Were You Wearing? Survivor Art Installation" on display in the Kansas Union gallery on the University of Kansas campus. The display, facilitated by KU's Sexual Assault Prevention and Education Center, is back by popular demand this month after its original KU debut last fall.

For years, the project received little attention, not even garnering a mention in the student newspaper. That all changed in September 2017, when Jen Brockman’s “What Were You Wearing?” exhibit made its way to the University of Kansas.

Brockman and her colleagues at the University of Arkansas developed the concept back in 2013, launching the first “What Were You Wearing” installation the next year to little fanfare, she said. But when Brockman, now the director of KU’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Education Center, brought the exhibit to KU last fall, the reaction was decidedly different.

The Journal-World’s original story on the exhibit led to stories in the Washington Post, New York Times and Chicago Tribune, among other national and international outlets.

“I think it was just a perfect storm, that folks were looking for a way to express some type of visual representation for the frustration surrounding rape culture and what they were experiencing,” Brockman recalled earlier this week. “So, the installation really gave folks a catalyst to put feelings into action.”

“What Were You Wearing?” juxtaposes first-person accounts from sexual assault survivors with re-creations of the outfits they were wearing when the attack took place, challenging the myth that dressing modestly can protect against sexual assault. It’s now back by popular demand at KU, just in time for Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

Outfits from the "What Were You Wearing?" exhibit, pictured here, include everything from child-sized sundresses to a pair of cargo pants and a T-shirt. The installation, on display at the Kansas Union gallery through April 27, re-creates the outfits sexual-assault victims were wearing during their attacks.

The installation, on display through April 27 at the Kansas Union gallery, features 15 new stories and re-created outfits from sexual assault survivors, including four accounts that were collected during the exhibit’s 2017 run. As with the original installation, this month’s display will feature an anonymous journal in the gallery where guests can “donate” their stories for future “What Were You Wearing?” exhibits.

That “perfect storm” that led to the project going viral last September, Brockman said, involved a number of factors. The installation opened on the heels of Bill Cosby’s first sexual assault trial and within weeks of the first major news reports of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexual misconduct and abuse, which then led to the proliferation of the #MeToo hashtag and movement.

The project struck a nerve, Brockman said, partly because of the current events and national conversation surrounding sexual and gender-based violence, and partly because it “forces people to be confronted” with long-standing taboos around sexual assault. The question, “What were you wearing?” isn’t just asked by Internet trolls and criminal-defense attorneys in sexual-assault cases. Oftentimes, Brockman said, it’s asked by the survivor’s loved ones — not out of malice, but out of fear.

“The reality is, violence has nothing to do with the clothing you’re wearing,” Brockman said. “It has everything do with someone choosing to do harm against you.”

If you go

What: “What Were You Wearing?” exhibit

Where: Kansas Union gallery, level 4 of the Kansas Union, 1301 Jayhawk Blvd.

When: The installation runs until April 27. Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.

How much: Entry is free.

Since the project’s debut at KU last fall, Brockman’s office has received messages from organizations and individuals the world over asking to re-create the exhibit. “What Were You Wearing?” has been either requested or, in some cases, already staged, at 225 entities on six continents, and that’s just in the last seven months alone, Brockman said.

Though SAPEC remains focused primarily on the preventive aspect of its work, Brockman said, the team is encouraged by the “incredible awareness” generated by the exhibit. Brockman and the project’s co-creator, Mary Wyandt-Hiebert, offer an installation packet for those who want to stage their own exhibits. The packets come free of charge, but SAPEC does ask that prospective hosts have a partnership with either a campus-based or local victim/survivor advocacy program.

“What we love about the project is seeing smaller programs that don’t have the resources being able to take what we’ve created and take ownership of it,” Brockman said.

Often, she said, the international requests come from individuals and organizations that lack the institutional support SAPEC enjoys at KU. One of her favorite examples comes from a 16-year-old student in Kazakhstan who wanted to bring the exhibit to his community.

“The biggest impact for us has been those relationship-building opportunities for those other programs, being able to spread the work of the KU community and what it means to be a Jayhawk through this work,” Brockman said.