'What Were You Wearing?'

Photo by Alan Warren, Messenger-Inquirer | awarren@messenger-inquirer.com Crystal Newton, a therapist at New Beginnings, looks over the display of 17 outfits of “What Were You Wearing?” on Wednesday in the windows of an empty storefront at Towne Square Mall. The sexual assault exhibit challenges the myth and pervasiveness of victim-blaming.

An empty storefront in Towne Square Mall holds 17 outfits that can carry a big emotional wallop for mall walkers and shoppers who take the time to read and explore the display.

Across the hall from The Children's Place, New Beginnings Sexual Assault Support Services installed an exhibition earlier this year. It includes pajamas, T-shirts and shorts, a cheer uniform and prom dress, among other items. Above each outfit hangs a card with comments from a sexual assault survivor.

"Pajamas. Pajamas when I was 8, 9, and 10. Pajamas when I was 13. Pajamas when I was 17. The dark is my biggest fear to this day," one card read.

It hangs above two pairs of girls' winter pajamas.

"The first time I was wearing sweats and a T-shirt," one narrative read. "The second time I was wearing a cheer uniform. He ripped the buttons and I had to get it altered afterwards. I hated cheer after that and quit before the season was over."

"What Were You Wearing?" is a sexual assault survivor art installation that started at the University of Arkansas in 2014. Since that time, it has been recreated in other venues across the nation, including Baylor University, University of Iowa and Ohio University.

The Towne Square Mall vignettes do not depict local survivors' narratives and outfits. Instead, they represent the stories and clothing of survivors from other areas. New Beginnings used information from the University of Kansas Sexual Assault Prevention and Education Center, which also has displayed the exhibit.

The local display went up in April, coinciding with Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

"We're trying to impact the myth and pervasiveness of victim-blaming," said Terri Crowe, New Beginnings victim advocate.

Often, people ask a sexual assault survivor what she was wearing as if clothes could provoke an attack, but that question places the responsibility on the survivor instead of the offender, Crowe said.

The everyday clothes in the exhibit -- one outfit is a U.S. Army uniform -- prove that apparel isn't to blame.

"The installation asks participants to understand that it was never about the clothing and the act of shedding those clothes is never enough to bring peace or comfort to survivors," according to the University of Kansas website. "The violation is not simply woven into the fabric of the material, it is part of the survivor's new narrative."

The concept of the exhibit was inspired by Mary Simmerling's poem "What I Was Wearing," which is also displayed in the window with the Towne Square Mall installation.

One stanza of the poem reads:

"if only it were so simple

if only we could

end rape

by simply changing clothes."

Crowe said she has received a few personal comments about the display at Towne Square Mall, which is a first for New Beginnings. Some people are glad to see the exhibit because it brings awareness to a sensitive issue.

The display will remain up for an undetermined period of time.

"These are everyday clothes," Crowe said. "People are just going about their business, living their lives when someone decides to perpetrate these crimes."

Renee Beasley Jones, 270-228-2835, rbeasleyjones@messenger-inquirer.com.

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