Her memories of the time in which she worked ‘inside’ one of Ontario’s sixteen institutions stirred Sandra Phillips to feature 16 identical sweat suits, because as she recalled, everyone wore the same thing. Now, a leader with the North Hastings Community Integration Association her resolve is strong to promote citizenship, social inclusion – and choice.
Clothing interests me. So do rights. I worked in an institution in the 1970s. I was appalled when I noticed that an article of clothing would be worn by one person one day, then when it came back from the laundry would be worn by somebody else. I also noticed that there were “stores” in the basement of an institution which stocked items of new clothing for individuals to take with them if they ever moved out. I moved on from an institutional job to community agencies that promote citizenship. But the memory that has stayed with me so powerfully is that of the singlemost prevalent institutional “outfit”—the ill-fitting, nondescript, grey sweat suit. In choosing this “object” I was struck by how the sweat suit—devoid of any labels, markers or designer logos— represented the monotony and routines of institutional life. And how having no choice over “what to wear today”, was a larger statement about what sense the residents had of their anonymity and powerlessness.
View a short interview with Sandra Phillips, creator of Dressing.
Q: Sweatsuits come in lots of different colours. Why did they have to wear grey?
A: Every institution had its own version of “everyday clothes” for the people who lived there. Some institutions supplied beige dungarees and checked shirts, while others supplied blue sweatsuits or some other plain outfit. The key was that it should be pretty much the same for every resident, so that if the clothes got mixed up in the laundry, it wouldn’t really matter. The exhibit installation uses grey sweatsuits to symbolize the erasure of individuality and the boring sameness of institutional life and its routines.
Q: Why didn’t residents just keep their own clothes in a drawer so they could wear them when they wanted to?
A: The residents didn’t have a drawer. They may have had a locker – like the ones in high schools, except they didn’t have locks on them. They may have had a bedside table for their glasses and false teeth. But they had no private place to keep or guard anything from anyone who might want what they had.
Q: But when they went out on trips into the community, would they not have better things to wear?
A: We know that in some of the institutions, the residents went on outings in busses occasionally, and when they did, they wore their “dress-up” clothes. Every resident had one dress-up outfit to wear. Unfortunately, their outfit looked exactly like everyone else’s outfit: perhaps polyester blue hounds-tooth pants, a blue shirt and a navy necktie. While it may have looked better than a grey sweatsuit, it still made a very obvious display of anonymity. Some people choose professions and pursuits where they dress in uniforms – police, for example, or choir members – but the individuals in the bus had no choice. And between trips, those clothes were locked away in a storage room to which residents did not have access.
Q: What kinds of things could they do to express their individuality?
A: They could roll up a pant-leg. They could carry a big tobacco pipe. They could develop some habits that everybody recognized as theirs – like always being the first in line for lunch, always bantering with the staff using the same jokes, always carrying keys that jingled but didn’t open any of the locked doors. These are poor substitutes for real freedom and real choice.