Transformation Performance

My jumping off point for the project was the desire to do something with my wedding dress. I have done nothing with the dress since I took it off over a decade ago. It sat at my parents’ house until they moved this January forcing me to take it with me. It then sat at my place almost taunting me to figure out what to do with it. At first, I thought I wanted to find something positive to do with it but even after locating a place to donate it, I couldn’t bring myself to do so. Instead, the dress continued to sit there. This project seemed the perfect opportunity to do something with the dress. I held no attachment to the dress. In fact, putting on the dress again almost triggered a panic attack for me. I was never a girl who dreamed of my perfect wedding and the happy ever after promised in Disney movies and fairytales. When my marriage fell apart, I was forced to confront the lies taught to us about marriage as well a the fact you may not get a happily ever after no matter how much you try to be the perfect wife. For me, a wedding dress represents all the falsehoods we are taught as girls and later the toll marriage often takes on a woman. I felt I need to make something that spoke to these issues.

After arguing back and forth my the course instructor and researching wedding dress lore, feminist artists, and even biology, I came upon a clear direction for the project in the idea of metamorphosis—the change from one thing into something completely different. The transformation from a caterpillar to a butterfly takes place in three distinct stages. The caterpillar is the first stage. It then goes into the chrysalis stage where it is encased in a cocoon. During this stage, the caterpillar is basically destroyed in order to become a butterfly. The final stage is the butterfly. The new butterfly does retain some awareness of it’s life as a caterpillar. While I did not want a literal reference to this process, the idea of three stages and destroying oneself to be reborn better stuck with me. I also thought about the idea that all our cells are completely new after seven years. That means that I was biologically a completely different person from the start of my relationship than when my marriage ended. It also meant that I am close to having no part of my physical form having ever had any contact with my ex husband. All of these ideas lead me towards a three stage performance starting with my wedding dress and ending in a new forth that embodied growth and empowerment.

The performance starts with my wedding dress. The dress is still dirty and damaged from my wedding. I ripped the entire dress apart at the seams and sewed velcro to all the seams. The goal was for the dress to be able to be torn apart during the performance. My thought process was that the dress would be torn from the person wearing it representing both a dismantling of the traditional fairytale, happily ever after marriage myth along with the idea of the pieces marriage can take from a woman. For me, marriage felt like being stripped of the things that made me in order to become this perfect wife I was taught to be. There wasn’t another model I had to look at. The women around me all occupy to the traditional role of wife and mother fairly happily even when they are otherwise non traditional. I really had no guidebook or example for anything else. It didn’t take me long to become extremely resentful of marriage and my husband. I still struggle to make my peace with the idea of marriage and the role of wife years later. I don’t know that I will ever want to be married or a wife again because of it. I had a male do the ripping of the pieces of the dress because of my feelings about the dynamic between husband and wife in a marriage. This stage of the performance ends with the woman stripped of the dress and the dress lying in pieces around her. The myth had been broken down and dismantled.

The next stage involves constructing a “cocoon” that’s part are stored or hidden inside the bottom of the dress. I use the word cocoon loosely. I like that this stage performs the same function but want to distance myself from a literal representation. This stage also proved the most problematic because of construction issues. With more time and money, perhaps I could have come up with a solution that could be activated with little effort from the woman. I found a template for a paper lampshade and worked out the construction to make the template useable for a life-size version. The woman is able to lift the cocoon up and hook it into place. It covers her as she makes the transition into the third stage. I considered the idea of somehow incorporating the dress into this part as part of the destruction of the old to make the new, but time and resources determined this would not be feasible. I find the simplicity of the result beautiful and appropriate as all the societal shoulds have been stripped away allowing for a new form to take shape.

The final stage involved moving to a place of empowerment and a thought on a new direction. I struggled with this phase the most because I have no good answer on what the new reality might be. I am still trying to figure it out for myself. However, life intervened and I kept thinking about how our secrets and the things we are taught are not okay to even think as women often define us and control our existence. It became clear that this new stage needed to speak to breaking that pattern. During my marriage, I held so many things inside me because I felt that I couldn’t talk about them. It wasn’t okay to say them. However, I felt power, relief, and acceptance once I started to actually say them. Moreover, I was struck by how many women shared the same thoughts. It occurred to me that all women probably had things they couldn’t say for so many reasons. I created a basic submission form and posted the link on Facebook inviting the women in my life to both respond and share with other women. I was floored by the responses I got. So many felt like I could have written them. All the pain, shame, and self-hate came out in the words. Surprisingly, I found this empowering. Perhaps if we start to have the courage to say these things, we can change the reality for women. My plan originally was to screen print the words on fabric but again time and resources intervened so I wrote the words on two large pieces of fabric. From there, I needed to decide the final form this would take. I liked the idea of armor as a reference both to female empowerment as well as protection. The words could protect the woman in battle. The final form was dress made from the fabric and formed to reference armor.