Artist, designer and researcher Helen Storey uses the power of fashion to raise awareness of social and environmental issues, such as climate change. Her recent project, Dress For Our Time, transformed a used refugee tent into a wearable piece of art – highlighting a timely subject to audiences in a thought-provoking way.
Helen took a break from her work with London College of Fashion’s Centre for Sustainable Fashion to tell us more about the project and why fashion is such a powerful tool to convey difficult topics.
The Dress For Our Time project began in 2012 with a mission to find a way to bring the issue of climate change to people through fashion. Helen told us she wanted to subvert expected methods of design to create “a piece that might break your heart and would keep you connected to the cause, without being preachy”.
Appropriate given the transient nature of the piece, the resulting idea for Dress For Our Time came to Helen while she was travelling herself. “I was sitting very early in the airport waiting for a first flight, looking at the TV screens and all I could see were fields and fields of UNHCR tents and people in abject misery. And at that moment I realised I didn’t need anything techy or flash, I needed a cloth that had humanity in it already, a cloth that was holding life.”
After a difficult process bringing the tent into the UK, because “there is no precedent for tents coming backwards,” this cloth became a dress with minimal intervention – armholes were added and the chimney became the neck opening. A tent that was home to a family of six, who had walked from Syria to Jordan was transformed into a wearable art piece, with “every mark on it, a symbol of their living”.
Since its inception, the dress has been displayed in many locations and been through various iterations. At St Pancras Station in London, as a backdrop to COP21 it was projected from within with Met Office data, forecasting the effects of climate change, while at the Science Museum it displayed UNHCR data of every person on the move on the planet at that time. The dress was worn by UNHCR Ambassador, Rokia Traore at Glastonbury festival, on a bridge over the Thames, and at the UN in Geneva when the Syrian Peace Treaty was first being negotiated.
“There have been as many different reactions to the dress as there are to the refugee crisis itself.” Helen told us, “Children are enchanted by it. The idea you can tell a story that a family once lived in this and now a woman is wearing it. It’s a very unique way for people to talk to children about it in a way that isn’t scary”.
“The UNHCR logo is so well known now, whether you like it, or not, you’re likely to have a reaction when you see. It will mean ‘ something’ to you. And then when you realise it’s a dress and it’s moving, then you’ve really got people in that space of curiosity. And to be curious about tragedy may be one of the few ways to engage the imaginations of others towards this cause.”
Since touring the dress, Helen has moved the project into “frontline action” by returning to Za’atari Camp in Jordan where the tent originated and working with the refugees on various projects. These range from practical skill sharing – such as working with Professor Tony Ryan of Sheffield University to develop methods for growing plants out of old urine-soaked mattresses – to projects that are more closely linked to the work expected by a fashion college. The latter involves working with a group of 8-18-year-old girls to teach them how to make warm coats – responding to their love of fashion and desire to make things, but also on a darker side, to their fear of a harsh winter living in the camp.
Helen insists she has learnt just as much, if not more, from the refugees. “What they have to teach us about our connected future is almost unimaginable. The obvious things are around resilience and the speed they can escalate innovation, but it’s also their ability to find joy, to love each other, their hospitality, generosity and respect towards the other. Their frugality. These are just words, but when you actually spend time with people who live it, it seems to hold a different kind of resonance entirely.”
Yet when these issues are often in the headlines or mentioned on the news it’s easy for us to become desensitised, why are art-led projects such as Dress For Our Time so successful? “I think it’s a currency that goes beyond words.” Helen says, “Part of the problem with these big issues is that most of them make us feel redundant, guilty or impotent, but when you work with the language of the soul, perhaps we actually stand a chance.”