It’s something familiar to all of us… any time some horrific new story emerges about sexual harassment, assault, or rape, there’s always someone — male or female — who asks “What were you (they) wearing?” Sometimes it’s easy to overlook just how dangerous and nonsensical a question this is, so deeply is it ingrained into our culture. It subtly shifts the blame onto the victim, and away from the perpetrator, as if an attack is somehow invited by the choice of clothing.
Now an exhibition in the Molenbeek area of Brussels, Belgium is tackling this head on by displaying the outfits survivors wore when they underwent their ordeals. They’re not the literal clothing, but instead inspired from the accounts of victims. This isn’t the first time such an exhibit has gone ahead – in fact, this one is done in partnership with The University of Kansas, who previously displayed the items at the campus’ student union. Canada’s own Corner Brook had their own exhibit too, inspired by the university.
The organizers even hope it will spread across Europe, as the clothes were put together from statements given by victims, using a mix of their own and borrowed clothes.
In this latest display, a range of outfits can be seen, from pyjamas to shirts, highlighting, as if we needed reminding, that it’s not the tone of an outfit that solicits assault. The area’s prevention services project manager Delphine Goossens, speaking to Refinery29, said, the aim behind the exhibit was to “to create a tangible response to one of our most pervasive rape culture myths,” and went on, “The belief that clothing, or what someone was wearing, ’causes’ rape is extremely damaging for survivors.” You can say that again.
She said she hoped the display may help us rethink accepted stereotypes and myths around rape, including its cause and our reactions. Discussing the tendency in our culture to focus more on the victims’ behaviour, she said, “We still tell our young girls to pay attention to what they are wearing, but we still do not teach our boys not to abuse… We would like people to understand that every woman could wear what they want and they shouldn’t be attacked. That’s what the exhibition shows: no outfit can prevent rape.” And it does just that — there’s even a My Little Pony t-shirt included, for crying out loud.
Hopefully, by having a visual answer to the thoughtless “What were you wearing?” question, the reality of rape being no fault of the victim becomes apparent.
Goossens added, “This installation allows participants to see themselves reflected in not only the outfits, but also in the experiences of the survivors.” It’s a bold and sadly necessary move, showing us that victims are just regular people, doing their regular thing – it’s the perpetrator’s behaviour, and that only, that we should be questioning.