‘What Were You Wearing?’ art installation to give voice to sexual assault survivors

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After 10 years of representing a global movement empowering voices of sexual assault survivors, the “What Were You Wearing?” art installation will be hosted at the University of Kansas in April.

The installation, featuring recreated outfits that survivors were wearing when they were sexually assaulted, is set to be open for two weeks during April, which is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

First exhibited at the University of Arkansas in April 2014, “What Were You Wearing?” was created by the university’s sexual assault advocacy and resources center staff members, Mary Wyandt-Hiebert and Jen Brockman, according to a KU news release. Since then, universities, organizations and communities have adopted their own versions.

Jen Brockman

“To be the inspiration for so many different projects is really humbling,” Brockman said in the release.

Brockman, KU’s Sexual Assault Prevention & Education Center director since 2016, and Wyandt-Hiebert initially drew inspiration from Mary Simmerling’s poem, “What I was wearing,” which asserts that no clothing invites rape or sexual assault.

They began by interviewing survivors about the clothing they wearing at the time they experienced sexual violence. Using donated thrift store items, they recreated and organized those outfits on display along with survivors’ quotes. Outfits ranged from athletic uniforms to child-sized dresses, according to the release.

Since its origin, “What Were You Wearing?” has been used as a framework by more than 300 organizations across six continents, according to the release. Since 2018, many of those organizations have repeatedly hosted the installation. In 2022, the “What Were You Wearing: Fashion Exhibit” by RISE was hosted at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City.

Touch screens at KU’s upcoming installation will allow visitors to see various locations around the world where the exhibition has been hosted.

Brockman said she takes pride in keeping the installation open source, because “no one should profit off the stories donated by survivors.” Additionally, she recognizes the ways social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok have deepened the installation’s impact.

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“It has allowed for access to the conversation to a much larger audience, with survivors around the world utilizing those platforms to answer the universal question, ‘What were you wearing?’” Brockman said in the release.

The opening reception is scheduled for 4 to 6 p.m. Thursday, April 4 in the Kansas Union Gallery, 1301 Jayhawk Blvd. on KU’s campus. It’s free to attend, and Brockman will be present to speak.

The art installation will be open at the Kansas Union Gallery Tuesday, April 2 through Thursday, April 18.

Visit KU’s Sexual Assault Prevention & Education Center website, sapec.ku.edu/wwyw, for more information about the installation.

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Resources for survivors

If you have experienced sexual violence or trauma, please seek the help that’s right for you. There are many options available, and you don’t have to file a police report if you don’t want to.

Get 24/7 help in Lawrence: The Sexual Trauma & Abuse Care Center
  • Call 785-843-8985 to reach an advocate, 24/7. (Consider saving that number in your phone in case you or someone you know ever needs it.)
  • After an assault: What are my options? Check this page for detailed information about
    • talking to an advocate,
    • going to the hospital,
    • making a police report,
    • and/or talking to a counselor or therapist.
  • On campus? Check this page for specific resources for the University of Kansas, Haskell Indian Nations University, Baker University, Ottawa University and more.
Resources on KU’s campus:
  • Contact the CARE (Campus Assistance, Resource, and Education) Coordinator: Students can make an appointment by email, care@ku.edu, or by calling 785-864-9255. It’s free, confidential and voluntary to talk with the CARE Coordinator. All genders welcome. Read more here.
  • Find more KU campus resources at this link. Specific information about sexual assault exams can be found here.
  • Direct message KU CARE Sisters on Instagram. You don’t need to be affiliated with Greek Life to reach out and/or receive assistance. (Note: CARE Sisters provide peer support and education, but this is not a 24/7 service like others listed here.)
Domestic violence situations: The Willow Domestic Violence Center
  • Reach the Willow for help 24/7 at 785-843-3333.
  • Find more resources on the Willow’s website at this link.
More resources
  • StrongHearts Native Helpline: Call 1-844-7NATIVE (762-8483) for 24/7 safe, confidential and anonymous domestic and sexual violence support for Native Americans and Alaska Natives that is culturally appropriate.
  • National hotline: Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233), text “START” to 88788, and/or visit thehotline.org to chat and learn more, 24/7.

Maya Hodison (she/her), equity reporter, can be reached at mhodison (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.

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