Clothing as Healing: Operational and Ecological Methods

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Our clothing choices are impacted by larger structures of societal life: gender, fatphobia, even foreign policy. Although it could be easy to demonstrate how clothing relates to these aspects of our lived experience, what remains overlooked is how these same issues — foreign policy, representation, sexism, etc. — influence our interior lives: our emotions, psyche, and health. Nevertheless, our circumstances are bound to affect our bodies. Just as corporeality is the site of many social politics, it also evidences the trauma we experience through these politics.

A recent study by sociologist and medical doctor Roberto Montenegro explores the effect of chronic stress from racism on health. But for those who experience the trauma of social marginalization, these connections have already been made clear through experience. Those who experience trauma are more likely to have issues with their gut and nervous system, along with the mental health concerns caused by such situations.

Despite these links between trauma and the body, the objects with some of the most intimate relationships to our corporeality have not been explored adequately as for their healing capacity. Despite all of the ‘reading’ that goes on in cultural studies linking clothing to representation, not enough work has explored how clothing might become an interlocutor between the worldly causes of harm and our often fragile states of well-being.

The field of design hasn’t completely ignored this need. Emotionality has long been a legitimate focus of design problem solving in various ways. European designers like Stijn Ossevoort have focused on the idea that designed objects must fulfill not only our practical needs, but also our emotional ones. Utilizing narrative, specifically, to accomplish his goal, in one project he created objects based on the stories of individuals. One multi-project investigation named “Wearable dreams” explores the possibility of using wearable devices to portray human emotions and connection. Ossevoort began the investigation through a focus on the relationship between people and their clothes. He used indirect questions to gain information about people’s deep feelings and fantasies about their clothing, such as by asking what their favorite piece of clothing would be like personified — what gender, age, and personality would their favorite piece of clothing have, for example? Using information from his series of questionnaires, Ossevoort created various design projects, one of which was a jewelry project called “Thoughts of Love.” In this project the jewelry pieces exist in a set for loved ones. Each jewelry piece has a remote activation interface that triggers a smell in the other, reminding the person receiving the smell that their loved one is thinking of them.