The House Dress Project | Telling important stories with Wearable Art

“The House Dress Project” by Kimberly Becker

Women have stories. We can each site examples of how we have been diminished, held down or overlooked in our lives simply because of our gender.  With “The House Dress Project”, I am providing a way to tell those stories.  

I have chosen to make wearable art pieces in the form of dresses to convey the stories because we use our clothing to show the world who we are.  We get dressed each day and choose how to present the person we are on the inside, on the outside.  What better way to tell our stories than with dresses. In past work, I have referenced clothing- bustles on painted panels, images of ball gowns, references to brides.  This is the first series where I embraced the garment, learned how to sew clothing, and took it all the way to “wearable art”.  Along with the House Dresses, I am currently creating delicate vests inspired by an antique lace vest that I found in the bottom of a pile of handkerchiefs in a junk shop in Paris. The vest was hand sewn with delicate stitches by someone over 100 years ago.   I am also creating collars (a nod to RBG). The collars tell stories too.  They have words embroidered on them and are made of fake fur, velvet and organdy.

To prepare to make the  House Dresses, I collect stories along with  the address of the house the storyteller lived in when the story occurred.  I sew each dress using cotton organdy and silk organza, paint an image of her house on the front, and then embroider the story on the back.

The stories are sometimes painful, sometimes maddening, and often times shifted a person’s whole life.  One woman told me about her grandmother, and how she wanted to be a scientist, but once married, was expected to “keep house and throw cocktail parties”.  Another woman tells of her inability to attend law school because her father would only pay for the boys to go.  Another explains how she always felt more like an object than a person in her family. 

The dresses have a diaphanous quality. They are lovely and draw you in, only to confront you with the uncomfortable stories they carry. The delicate quality of the fabric mimics lingerie and discusses the exploitation of our women’s by society. 

 I started this project months before the #metoo movement.  I honestly believe that it is being received by the public with more open minds. People want to understand.  Many visitors to the galleries they have been shown in have told me that they had to step away for a moment because the dresses stirred up many emotions for them.  Several have come away in tears.  The stories are personal, but in a way, universal. The overwhelming comments I receive are appreciation for giving voice to these women, and in doing so, beginning to write our full history, including women.

The next phase of the “House Dress Project” is called “Roe House Dresses”. These stories discuss both the difficult decision to have an abortion,  and also the great benefit that having access to a legal abortion provides.  Planned Parenthood is one such example.  Many of us received our first OBGYN care at a Planned Parenthood and those stories matter.  Women’s rights are slowly disappearing under the current administration and we must keep sharing our experiences.

Wearable Art provides me with a vehicle for giving women a voice.  I have always believed we can be feminists and still enjoy high heels or a gorgeous cocktail dress.  By creating art that is carried by the body, we are delivering a message that we are powerful, we have stories to tell and we are women.

All of my dresses are for sale. However, often people commission me to create a dress for their personal story. 

Kimberly kindly wrote and contributed this piece to WearableArt.org as part of our annual theme “The Tranformative Power of Wearable Art.”  seARTS and the Wearable Art Group are most grateful for this contribution.  Kimberly is a Waltham resident and a 1990 graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design.  She  was recently featured in the RISD alumni magazine and also in the Boston Globe.  She is a painter and embroiderer with a rich educational background complemented by innovative exhibitions throughout New England.  Follow her on Instagram.