We seem to have consensus that the clothes make the man. But Burlington artist Wylie Sofia Garcia has turned that axiom on its ear with “The Dress That Makes the Woman.” That’s the name of an art project-cum-performance piece she commenced on November 7, and it will involve 12 constantly evolving dresses, as well as a blog to record the progress in images and commentary. The idea is this: Each month, Garcia will wear a different dress, and each day she will add to it — bits of lace, sleeves, decorative patches, buttons or other frills, as the mood strikes her. And as her closet permits.
“I made rules,” Garcia says. “I can’t go out and buy anything new. Everything — the base of the dress or anything added to it — has to already exist in my life.” One caveat: She can accept contributions from friends. Mostly, though, she’d like to put to use items from her own substantial collections of clothing, fabrics and froufrou.
The second, totally practical rule: “I don’t have to sleep or work out in the dress.” Garcia admits this allowance has caused her to spend extra hours in her jammies, and “to confront my not liking to exercise.”
With her inaugural month nearly over, Garcia has augmented a basic black dress with all manner of patches, fancy stitching and a sweater, cut up and attached to the dress’ bodice. “I’m channeling all these things into the dress,” she says, “from my past, about living in Vermont.” When she takes it off and hangs it up at night, she says, the dress now retains her shape. She’s named the garment “Miss November.” And, yes, she hand washes it.
Garcia, 30, notes that the dress has altered her behavior in subtle but distinct ways. “I’m blow-drying my hair and putting on makeup,” she marvels during a recent visit to her Pine Street studio. “Today was a huge day for the project: I shaved my legs!”
A Houston, Texas, native, Garcia grew up in the world of couture, debutante balls and cotillions. “But I rejected all that,” she says. “Now it’s weird that I’m returning to it. I’m making the dress, but it’s changing me. I’m changing for my art.”
Garcia admits she wasn’t sure where this dress thing was going to go, and is somewhat surprised to observe her self-confidence bolstered. “As more people take notice,” she writes on her blog, “I am being forced to own my identity.” That confidence emerges now every time someone says, “What a nice dress you’re wearing.”
Garcia had been creating two-dimensional fabric art and installations — the most recent was shown at the Backspace Gallery during the South End Art Hop in September. For special occasions like that, she would create an outfit and strut around in it, allowing the clothing to determine the way she presented herself. For the Art Hop, she made a voluminous, frothy pink gown, all bustle and lace and layers, and held court like a princess. She also has been constructing outfits, including a unique red wedding dress, for friends — an outgrowth of her former “upcycled” clothing business. “I’m having the most fun with dresses,” she says. “I needed to integrate them into my life. They’re a reflection of who I am and how I change, but I wasn’t wearing them.”
Garcia’s “integration” insight came suddenly one night last month. She was lying in bed contemplating what she would create for a show next fall at Stowe’s Helen Day Art Center — she’s been invited to be the female counterpart in an exhibit about masculinity — and where her art was going in general. “I immediately thought, I’m going to wear the same dress for a year.” When she told her husband, fellow artist Clark Derbes, he said, “You’re crazy.”
Garcia was undeterred, but she did relent to the logic of a friend, who suggested a month per dress, not a year. “It’s going to dissolve,” the friend pointed out. “And you’ll get bored.”
Hers is not the first clothes-related art project, Garcia readily acknowledges. Growing up in Houston, she knew of performance artists Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing, who dubbed themselves the Art Guys. They had a project titled “SUITS: The Clothes Make the Man.” Designer Todd Oldham made the suits; the Art Guys sold advertising space on them and wore the emblazoned outfits for a year. “I was 16 or 17 when I went to see them walk in a ‘two-man parade,’” Garcia recalls. “I thought that was so cool.” And, she says, “I thought there should be a female equivalent.”
More than a decade later, she offers her own version, albeit with no commercial affectations. Having begun by combining three dresses with personal significance — one she’d worn to a cotillion in high school, another she had on when Derbes first painted her portrait — Garcia says that forced her to choose other elements with meaning in her life. Some are, by necessity, deconstructed to make something new. For example, she says, “I had to add a sweater as it started getting cold. It was my mom’s sweater in her twenties, and she gave it to me in my twenties. The dress is carrying a lot of memory.”
Garcia says she believes it is the responsibility of the artist to “eat, breathe and sleep” with an art project. “Three days ago, I was wearing the dress in a dream,” she says. “It’s a part of me now.”
In addition to the Helen Day exhibit, Garcia has been invited to participate in a 2012 group show at the Duxbury (Mass.) Art Complex Museum called “Self-Fabricated.” She intends to include a couple of her dresses in it. Chances are, they’ll still hold her shape, Garcia’s “self” and fabric as one.