Connected \\ March 6, 2020

Revealing one’s true colors

Written in pencil on small pastel-colored paint swatches, dozens of responses hang on a wall inside the Carl and Iris Barrel Apfel Gallery of Fashion and Design. The interactive invites guests to answer the question: How do you express yourself through fashion and design?

My body is my canvas; my art is my story.

Comfort equals happiness and confidence.

Slapping on anything that's not ripped or stained.

paper squares arranged by color, pinned to a wall with handwritten notes on them

“We really wanted an opportunity for people to do just as the prompt says, express themselves. What I find personally interesting is when I see people have drawn something represented in the gallery,” says Petra Slinkard, The Nancy B. Putnam Curator of Fashion and Textiles. She then points to a sketch of someone in a wheelchair, a subtle hint to Jay Calderin’s one-of-a-kind dress for the Fashion Accessibility Project, or another drawing imitating one of designer Maya Luz’s spiked purses.

The gallery strives to empower people to see themselves as designers. As the fashion lineup is arranged by color, the interpretation team chose to create the interactive in the form of a large paint swatch wall, an action that Slinkard says lends itself to making personal choices regarding color.

After nearly five months, Slinkard has totes filled with hundreds of handwritten, scribbled and sketched responses in her office, with new ones collected each week. “Having the opportunity to see this come to life has just been wonderful,” she says.

While some answers are fun and brief — like a stick-figure drawing or a list of someone’s favorite colors — others lean to the more personal and philosophical. The phrase “Be bold” written in capital letters hangs next to “My body, my rules,” while another confidently asserts, “Wear what you want, not what others think you should.”

a woman places a lavendar note tag to the wall of other note tags

Some visitors said they express themselves through their tattoos or orange hair, and others reference specific items they love: platform heels, wool sweaters, a hoodie and sweats. But a handful of guests are more skeptical, saying, “Fashion is scary. What’s right, what’s wrong?” And some offer critiques of the industry and societal standards of beauty, which Slinkard says is equally as valuable.

“It’s turned out to be an effective tool to get people to think about design in their own lives and a chance for them to leave an impression in the gallery,” she says of the multiple voices and differing perspectives.

Orange color swatches with handwritten notes hang on a wall

A lavender color swatch bears the words: “Women are like gems, they shine with the help of fashion.” Another visitor, who describes herself as feeling easily overlooked with her petite frame, writes in cursive, “I use fashion to be intimidating and express wordless confidence.”

The contributions are powerful and beautiful, says Slinkard. “We’re excited this has turned into a platform where people feel comfortable expressing themselves,” she adds. Glancing at the inspiration wall, she also finds it curious how meticulous everyone is with placing their color swatch in the corresponding slot, an act that speaks to our collective drive for order and visual harmony.

All photographs by Bob Packert/PEM.

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