Pop-up exhibit "What Were You Wearing?" at UMMA examined sexual assault


What Were You Wearing?

More than 500 people pondered the pointed question, "What were you wearing?" at the exhibition of the same name. Photo by Sherlonya Turner.

The last time I asked myself, “Was it what I was wearing?” was last Friday. I had been eating my dinner at the bar of a local restaurant when a man struck up a conversation with me. Eventually, he made a joke to the bartender about bringing me a “roofie colada.” The bartender responded disapprovingly. Then, the man doubled-down on his joke, adding, “Don’t worry; she won’t remember a thing.”

As the evening went on, I couldn’t quite shake that joke.

What Were You Wearing? is a pop-up installation that sets out to challenge the idea that sexual assault is somehow about clothing choice. On Monday, Dec. 4, this exhibit was at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, brought there in partnership with the HeForShe student organization.

The original art project was created by Jen Brockman, director of the University of Kansas sexual assault prevention center, and Dr. Mary A. Wyandt-Hiebert who works for the University of Arkansas’ rape education center. They had both attended a conference where they heard a poem called “What I Was Wearing" by Dr. Mary Simmerling. This work inspired their project. Since 2013, this exhibit has been shown at many other schools.

“I don’t remember what I was wearing the first time. But the second time. Boxers.”
--a survivor

There is something unsettling about walking to an exhibit about sexual assault while it's dark out. I was particularly aware of the difference between the regular darkness and the deeper darkness created in the shadows between some of the buildings that stood between my destination and my parking space.

In a small area of the museum, there were several clothing racks from which the outfits hung. The actual clothing that hung as a part of the exhibit was inspired by survivor accounts of their assaults. Above each outfit was a statement describing something about the assault that took place.

The publicity for this one-night exhibit had advertised free desserts. Perhaps that’s what drew the crowd. There were many viewers who slowly examined each outfit and read the text. In the end, over 500 people visited the installation. It was quiet there, even for an exhibit. Talking didn’t feel socially acceptable.

What Were You Wearing?

Silence was the soundtrack to the unnerving What Were You Wearing? exhibit. Photo by Sherlonya Turner.

I wanted to openly observe people as they moved through the exhibit, but it felt too personal, too much like peeking into somebody’s window. People moved around the clothing racks the way one might move past a casket in a funeral. We all observed, respectfully, and slowly, but taking care that the next person had her chance to view the clothes and read the signs.

“Each time, a t-shirt and jeans.”
--a survivor

I had taken my teenage son with me to the exhibit with me. I hadn’t expected him to really engage with the exhibit, but I often drag him along to things that I’m interested in. More often than not, he does his own thing. But I noticed that he was taking his time as we strolled through, reading each account. As he walked back to the car, he asked me to help him understand the exhibit. When I was done, he said, “That’s what I thought.” I told him that he looked very disturbed by what he had seen. He agreed, adding, “Who wouldn’t be?”

I have the feeling that as the evening went on, he couldn’t quite shake the exhibit.

I think he got the point.


Sherlonya Turner is the manager of the Youth & Adult: Services & Collections Department at the Ann Arbor District Library. She can be found diving headfirst into all sorts of projects over at sherlonya.net.