What does this dress really say about commitment?
Even once I had decided how it would take shape and I really liked it, then you have to get up the cajones to do it. On one hand you think, well it’s just something I’m wearing, it doesn’t really affect my life. But it does affect your life in a huge way, daily. You end up defending it, you get a lot of ridicule, it’s actually physically taxing. It’s consistent. Every day, all the time, everywhere, rain or shine, snow or mud, sick or healthy. Some days I think it’s really profound, some days I think it’s just a big waste of time. And the commitment to continue with that long-term endeavor and let yourself ride those waves. While it’s been very hard—I won’t lie about that—things are manageable if you take them one day at a time. Last week I had the flu. I felt like I could kick this dress down the street. I didn’t hang it up when I got home, and I left it on the floor. But then you get over that, and you get to the next place. I think overlaying all of my projects is sort of the point, and that is how life works. Everything sort of all happens in concert, and the real task is how to make that all jive.
Any surprising experiences you’ve had while wearing the dress?
People shouting at me, out of cars and on the street. People just yell out of their cars at me, which I thik is funny. Just the other day I was walking down 300 South, and this Toyota Tundra pickup truck was parked, and I didn’t realize anyone was in it. And this guy rolled down his window and yelled at me, “Outstanding outfit!” And I was like, “Out of a Tundra pickup! Who would have thought?” Sometimes the comments you get don’t come from the places you would expect. That’s a really nice surprise.
One thing I really do like is when the dress brings a little joy. Sometimes people just look at me and smile. Something I didn’t expect is that I’ve flown on airplanes a couple times, and they don’t really know what to do with me. I was really surprised at how TSA agents are really trained to be really respectful. They’re very matter-of-fact. But my dress kind of cracks them. I’ve been frisked a couple of times. They put on the gloves, and they explain where they’re going to touch me, and then they start lifting up all the layers, and then they just start laughing, they’re like, “We don’t know what to do with this! We’ve never been trained!” We do have a sort of funny bonding moment, and it’s kind of a respectful giggle. They don’t treat me like I’m a big problem.
I go into Home Depot a lot for my art projects, and they do come and ask me, “Are you homeless? We’ve seen you a lot.” But they’re all very nice about it. They really just want to understand, there’s no contempt or ridicule. Sometimes I do get approached with those reactions, right off the bat. “What are you doing? What’s with the dress?” I don’t always explain, it just depends on the mood I’m in, the time I have, how they approach me. I don’t really have time to talk to every person and explain the project, that’s not really the point. It kind of depends on their level of inquisition. I am living my life. Sometimes it’s great to leave that ambiguity, and just kind of whisk away.
Some people want to volunteer their story. I tell them what I’m doing, and then they’ll say, “I already have my wedding dress. And I’m not even engaged!” or “I’ve been married six times” and then they start telling me their story. So it becomes almost a confessional. It’s really interesting that this is kind of a catalyst for all these stories to come into my life, the stories about their dresses, and commitment, and all these other issues. People who have been married 50 years or longer. They’re like little gems. I pick up a lot of stories.
Have you done other projects since you started wearing the dress?
I’m working on a major sculpture project commissioned for the new Leonardo museum. It’s the largest piece I’ve ever made, scale-wise, it’s a large architectural sculpture connected to natural science and biology and algae, specifically. It’s been an interesting time, because I’ve spent a lot of time in professional meetings with engineers, architects, fabricators … and I’m in a gown, and I need to have a pretty straight conversation. I’m building a lot, I’m on a lot of equipment, I’m hauling a lot of stuff around. The gown is actually a hazard, it’s quit risky. I have to be aware of what I’m doing, and it can be quite dangerous. It does pose some issues, but I’ve survived so far.
The whole idea with the dress is that it’s a living experiment; it’s a living piece of art. It’s a durational work. It wouldn’t work the same if I dropped everything I was doing and wore a dress every day—went to coffee, went to lunch. The whole idea is to integrate it with your life, and to intersect it with your life, and do all the things you would normally be doing, jeans or dress. And it just happens to be dress right now. That was kind of a difficult thing in deciding. I also toured another work in the past six months that’s a performative installation piece about neuroscience. I toured it to Duke University. I had to talk to a lot of scholars, give a lot of lectures. They didn’t know I was coming in a dress. That was also a challenge.
A lot of my friends and family were advising me. “Is this the best time? You have a lot going on.” I thought, well, when is the right time? Life happens. You have to just take on the challenges and pile the plate high, and see what you can manage.
How has wearing the dress changed your life—both in a day-to-day sense and longer term?
Winter is the worst. I’m wet all the time. I’m the human mop. Fall I’m the human rake. Summer you’d think would be really hot, but it’s a sleeveless dress, and I’m in silk, baby. It’s not a bad material to be in. And I know how to swish a skirt like anyone. I know how to work a gown now. You learn how to have authority with a dress. If I ever went on a red carpet I would know what to do with the dress.
It’s sort of empowering to be in a big formal girly dress. I sometimes miss the power of the pants. But you feel that sort of command of, “I need room” in this grocery line, in this bar. There are some subtle things that change your day-to-day experience. Like your command of space, and your authority with your garments, and how it takes more effort to manage it. I’m wearing a fantasy, so it’s sort of testing how this fantasy and this iconic American image functions. And I’ll tell you that this iconic fantasy image of the female form is a cumbersome thing to wing around every day.
The dress is proving to be a valuable development tool. For example, some days when I feel like people are too focused on me due to the dress for my liking, I really have the urge to be a shrinking violet and I can retract into myself and away from society quite a bit at times. On the other hand, some days I feel like I almost “overperform” the dress and create false impact by puffing myself up in the frock. By forcing myself to experience discomfort on a wide spectrum, there’s gotta be some kind of self-confidence that is getting faced and understood on a deeper level. I do feel like this challenge, even only six months in, is providing me with a unique set of skills I will use throughout my life. They are hard to identify and articulate just yet, but it is the sense of that larger benefit that helps me stick with both the silliness and seriousness of this endeavor.
So … the dress. Do you wash it?
I do wash it. The point of the project was not to be disgusting. When we were anticipating the project I thought the worst thing would be the body odor. That’s really not a problem. If I let it go it actually starts to smell like street grime, like pavement. I’ve really devised a good method for cleaning it. Hand-washing it in the tub seems to be the best way. I do a light wash once a week, and I do a full wash once a week as well. It’s all organic material, it’s raw silk, but you do need an overnight dry time. At the beginning I was so careful, using all this expensive detergent. Now I throw it in there with Borax, some Tide, whatever smelly things it takes.
You do form a bond when you wash things by hand, which most people don’t do anymore—you throw things in the wash, which is a little more removed. I’m developing a physical relationship with the textile. I look at it this close, I touch it, I hug it and squeeze it dry. It’s a very ritualistic, meditative process. I’m really enjoying that because I feel like ritual is sort of missing from our world. I enjoy how I can see the material evolve. I can see new patterns that are coming through, and how it’s tearing here, and this stuff is coming loose there. The patina of the world on the dress I notice. I like having a physical relationship with the piece that that I’m developing—I consider it like a sculpture I’m making over time. And time is the ingredient of making this sculpture. I keep pieces that fall off of it, if I catch them. I find all the weirdest things caught in my dress when I’m watching. I have sticks and rocks and price tags from the supermarket, safety pins.
What was the process of choosing this dress?
I went to bridal stores and kind of told the lie that I was a bride. I wanted to be treated like a real customer. I was worried about what I was doing feel blasphemous to the shopowners. You get asked a lot of really personal prying questions when you’re buying a dress, so I had to tell a lot of white lies about my bridal party and where I was getting married.
To make this piece really work, I thought I really had to choose a ballgown style because I want to unmistakably look like a bride. There are a lot of beautiful understated white dresses, but they don’t scream “bride” from across the street. I tried every gigantic creampuff I could find. Too many of them looked like costumes, like something I would never wear. It came down to two gowns. I really labored over the decision. I would choose this dress to wear, and it has pockets, which was important.
I really invested time in shopping for the dress, and I also spent a lot of money. I spent my life savings’ in cash on it. I wouldn’t spend that much money on a dress outside of this project, but I thought there is a point of this work conceptually that is about pushing limits, going farther than we feel comfortable, and buying in a little bit to that “matrimania” that we all get tempted by. That is part of the challenge of this work. If I bought a dress that costs $600, there’s not a lot at stake. If I buy a dress that costs $5,000 … it made me real nervous. My savings were gone. My safety net was gone. It’s a huge commitment, and when you’re laying down cash, it’s more real.
After I bought the damn dress, I kept it in my apartment, and I meditated on it for a while. I waited until it felt right. The anticipation was killing me. You start fabricating ideas about how difficult it’s going to be. The first step is to put it on. Then the first weekend. Then the first airline flight. You’re trying to be prepared for what’s going to happen, but you can’t build it up too much. Sometimes things are fine. Sometimes going to the bank and the grocery store is easy. The first time I drove in my car I nearly cried from laughing. I had so much dress packed in my little Toyota Matrix. It was like this sea of cream puff. And I thought, “Even if this sucks the whole way, I just had one of the best laughs of my whole life.” And that’s what’s life’s about: those moments that you can’t re-create.
Where did you get the idea to do this?
It was over a long period of time, and there were stages of deciding about it. My very first inkling of an idea, I was shopping at a thrift store on the East Coast with a friend, and we noticed a prom dress. I kind of tossed around the idea of wearing a formal dress every day, or all these dresses that get discarded, and the loss of the formal in America, and this dress-down culture, and how I was sort of missing that. I talked in the car really loosely to her about wearing prom dresses, and what kind of reactions we would get, and what the experience would be like. We thought prom dresses would be interesting but we’re a little old for that. And we immediately jumped to wedding dresses.
A wedding dress holds all this significance and symbolism, and it’s one dress and it’s white, and then we kind of went “Oooh.” And I put that to sleep for years. I remember the next big psychological step was working at the Beehive Tea Room one day, and someone was doing a bridal shoot and walked by in a really gorgeous gown. My jaw fell down and I completely stopped my eyes completely tracked this woman, and I had that little sigh. And I don’t even know if I want to be married, but there’s something about that moment and that image. And I thought, “Why do I need to ask permission for that? Why can’t I just do it?” The vision of her gave me such an incredible feeling, not just of envy. I felt that sense of formality that’s missing in my own life, that reverence.
I thought, “You can just go buy a wedding dress.” You’re not supposed to if you’re not getting married, but you can. I had that exciting moment where I felt really rebellious, that I could just do that. And it also made me feel sick to my stomach. What if I wore it for a long time? What if I wore it every day? What if I wore it everywhere I went? What would it do to my life? What would it do to everyone else’s life? That’s where the idea really hatched, and it took another year or two to come to realize the idea.
What kind of planning did you do?
There was a lot of talking where I got really literal about what I was doing. Do I wash the dress, do I wear one dress, do I buy seven of the same dress? And thinking that the piece would conceptually be more about commitment and perseverance, and if you’re using perhaps marriage as a symbol or one goal as a symbol, whatever that goal may be—you’re going for one degree in college, you’re marrying one person, you’re picking a career—the idea of wearing one dress held a lot more weight. It also made it more challenging. My art process is very social, so I have a lot of conversations about what I’m thinking about. I finally decided it had to be one dress the whole time, and the whole process is to see how this thing that’s made to be worn once wears down in the every day. It’s really a symbol of commitment, not so much about marriage literally but about the psychology of perseverance.
What will be the end result of this project?
It’s very open-ended. I’m quite certain I won’t take the dress off on a year to the day. I did want to set something sort of ambitious for myself. It’s a little cliché to stop at exactly a year. It’s really more when I feel like I’ve learned what I need to learn. I’m not going to wear it forever. Forever is not going to happen. I doubt five years will happen. But outside of a year ... it’s hard to say what will happen.
I’m not sure how the final piece will end up. We’re doing some photojournalism, we’re recording some of my experiences. I’d like to do some hybridized new form of documentary. I think I’ll just have to collect all the information and see what I have at the end. I hope the dress will be something that I can show at the end. I feel like I have a pretty close relationship with this thing. But there’s also a time to let things go. I’m here to have an experience. I want to have it, be in the moment, and then I want to move on from it. Maybe that will be a gradual process, and then I get to exhibit it, and then I’ll see what we want to do. Maybe I’ll set it on fire. Maybe I’ll float it in the ocean. Maybe I’ll bronze it. Make a quilt. Who knows?