Constructing the Dress

My idea for this dress was to make an outfit that expressed a message about mental health (figure 1). In part, I wanted to use the outfit as a means to make the inside match the outside. It is not necessarily meant to symbolize one specific mental illness; however, it draws upon commonalities shared by many different mental health issues. These include attempts to hide mental health struggles from public view and the desperate need for additional support when suffering from mental illness. The idea of using fashion as a means to express mental health struggles was inspired by Alexander McQueen and his collections. He used fashion to tell stories, express his own emotion, and explore socially taboo topics like mental health. Like many of McQueen’s designs, this dress is not meant to be pretty; the message it conveys is not pretty. I knew from the beginning that I wanted the dress to be tight, structured, and work with the natural shape of the wearer as well as alter the wearer’s silhouette. It is both honest and illusionistic.

The dress is made almost completely out of duck tape. I chose to work primarily with duck tape for a few reasons. The first is that duck tape can create structured shapes more easily than standard fabric which would require starch or interfacing. Therefore, I thought it would be an effective and efficient material to achieve the structured look I wanted. Secondly, I liked that it is a binding material and its main purpose is to hold things together. This symbolism was something I wanted to incorporate into the design.

Duck tape has a no-nonsense, it-just-has-to-work connotation that I wanted for the dress. When it comes to functioning in society with a mental illness, you have to figure out what will get you through the day and do it. It does not have to be attractive, it just has to work. I intended for the dress to be like an exoskeleton, providing support and protection to the wearer. I want to convey the message that the wearer is being held together by duck tape both physically and, metaphorically, mentally.

The inside shell of the bodice is made of cotton (figure 2). This part is not meant to be seen by anyone but the wearer. It is the raw inside of the garment. However, pieces of cotton stick out the top and the sides of the bodice and peeks through gaps in the duck tape. It is messy and unraveling; none of the seams are finished. This is meant to represent the idea that as much as someone might try to cover up their struggles with mental health, to hide what is happening on the inside, there are often signs that others can see if they choose to look close enough. Despite the best efforts of the duck tape, the insides of the dress are bleeding out in places.

The shape of the dress was another careful consideration. I wanted the top to be quite fitted and the bottom to have volume. To achieve the look of the top, I first sewed a tube top using the red cotton. I put it on and built the rest of the top on my body. I duck taped it as tight as I could around my upper body (figure 3). My reasoning was if this is an outfit that will hold me together, it needs to be very tight and secure. It was so tight and inflexible that I had a friend cut a straight line down the back in order to remove it. The result is that the bodice is a cast of my body. The cast adds to the healing symbolism of the project. Just as you might get a plaster cast to protect a broken bone while it heals, this duck tape cast will protect your vulnerable parts while they try to heal. As much as mental illness rests in the mind, I have often felt as though mine also lives in the pit of my stomach. When I feel extremely anxious, I wrap my arms around my stomach because that is where my physical symptoms seem to manifest. For this reason, I knew that the dress needed extra tape around the middle so that it could hug my stomach for me (or for whoever might be wearing it).
The cast also accurately reflects the shape and size of my body. I often struggle with my body shape and it was something I wanted to confront in this project. Therefore, I intentionally stayed away from flattering vertical lines (the duck tape is laid horizontally) or modifications to the upper body silhouette. I did not use Spanx or peplums or belts. The smoke and mirrors were taken away to reveal what is underneath.

The skirt was more difficult to create than the top. I knew that I wanted an exaggerated silhouette similar to the skirts presented in McQueen’s Plato’s Atlantis Spring 2010 collection (figure 4). This took some trial and error. In the end, I used wire reinforced with hot glue to create a skeleton of the shape I wanted. It was inspired, in part, by the design of an umbrella. I wore the wire frame and covered it with duck tape, building it around my body. This proved to be rather difficult. If I were to do the project again, I would not build the skirt while wearing it. Additionally, I would create a series of separate panels and stitch them together instead of making the entire skirt as one piece. I believe this would give me more control over the shape and allow me to more easily manipulate the angles of the wire. The idea behind the skirt contrasts that of the bodice. I wanted to be truthful in the shape of the bodice by accurately reflecting the shape of my own body but I wanted the skirt to be an exaggeration, an illusion. The skirt is something the wearer can take cover under, hide behind. No one can see the true shape of a body under this structured veil. You do not have to be laid bare for all to see. Additionally, the volume of the skirt extends the wearer’s personal space. Nothing can get closer to the wearer than what the skirt allows, giving them added protection from the outside world.

The rest of the dress’s message lies in the details. Although duck tape is a strong material, meant to hold everything together, there are places where it has failed and required reinforcement. One instance of this is the red, corset-style tie at the back (figure 5). I really like the idea of the corset because its purpose is to structure the body and force it to take on a streamline, upright position. The bodice is unlike a corset in that it is moulded to the shape of my body instead of forcing it into a different shape; however, like a corset, it gives the body added structural support and holds everything together in an upright position. I like the idea of taking something that has traditionally been seen as a symbol of oppression (because it cripples the movement of the wearer) and transforming it into something positive. In this situation, the corset helps instead of hinders because it gives the wearer the extra support they need to function in daily life with mental illness. Although this support is mainly physical, it is also meant to reference the additional emotional support the wearer requires.

Additionally, corsets require another person to lace it up. Therefore, this outfit forces the wearer to ask for help. They must interact with another person in order to put on the armor they need to face the day. Therefore, the corset helps in two ways: first, as a means to physically strengthen the wearer and second, as a means of social interaction which has positive mental health benefits. It was for these reasons that I hammered holes along the back seam and threaded a red strip of cloth through them to reference the ties of a corset.

The front detail of the dress is another instance in which the duck tape failed to stay together (figure 6). I cut a straight line from the centre of the neckline to the point just below my sternum and then curved it to the left. It is a scar left from trying to cut out the heart of the wearer. Perhaps the cut was made by the wearer herself or perhaps it was an act of violence done unto her by the world; this remains open for interpretation. If the safety pins were not in place, it would be possible to pull the panel back and expose the heart of the wearer. Everyone, no matter their state of mental health, experiences moments of sadness, heartache and emotional vulnerability. People often go through different phases of guarding their hearts and exposing them. Sometimes it seems as though it would be more pleasant not to feel anything at all and that life would be easier if you removed your heart. But then come the days where you are glad that you did not cut it out and, instead, chose to safety-pin it back onto your chest. Although the dress was cut, the safety pins are a hopeful sign.

I used safety pins because they added visual interest, a sort of decoration, to the front of the dress and because they are a reminiscent of the Punk movement. Punk had a counter-cultural, transgressive aesthetic that relates to those suffering from mental illness who are often viewed as transgressive. Despite the prevalence of mental illness in today’s society, those who suffer from it are often stigmatized and viewed as deviations from an acceptable social norm. The main difference here is that partaking in the Punk movement was based in a person’s volition whereas mental illness is not something you can choose or refuse.

Overall, the dress is meant to express a statement about mental health. Because of the abstract nature of using fashion as a medium of expression, the outfit can be interpreted in several different ways. However, my intention behind the dress is that it is armour for the wearer, protecting them from harm. Although, conversely, by doing so it also highlights the wearer’s vulnerable state. The outfit does not erase vulnerability. It peeks through the cracks in the protection. Each cut, each hole, each imperfection documents a past trauma. However, this is the dress that will hold you together on your “bad days.” It is torn and battered and barely held together in places but it will get the job done. It will protect you and hold you and support you until the day when you just might be able to do it yourself.

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