2016-06-22 08:46

Provocative clothing design that changes society

Can artistic research projects in the field of design contribute to changes in society? Yes, that seems to be the case. Doctoral student Maja Gunn at The Swedish School of Textiles at the University of Borås has, in a series of projects, provoked and stretched the borders of how fashion can challenge today’s dominant heteronormative view.

‘We are affected by design and design affects society’, says Maja Gunn. ‘We are affected by what we see, what we do, and what we experience. That’s why I believe that change can be accomplished through design.’

Maja Gunn explains that her research is artistic and practice-based.

‘I go from the idea that clothing design has social and political functions and can create social and ideological change. From that idea, I introduce a way to investigate clothes’ ideological functions and to raise consciousness about questions and problems that are connected to design.’

The research has resulted in a programme for experimental fashion that she exemplifies through a series of artistic projects. In Maja Gunn’s doctoral thesis, these projects are shown together with explanations, theories, and analyses related to them.

The project is intended to be considered as ways to incorporate feminist and queer theory into creative design processes.

‘The design object can be discussion material rather than static objects. There are many questions that can be asked in relation to the projects and there’s a lot to discuss about them.’

To put on the ex’s clothes

One of the projects, On and Off, is rendered as a traditional performance wherein Maja Gunn stands on a small box and reads a text. The text is written in diary form and tells how someone, after a separation, clothes him- or herself in their ex-partner’s left-behind clothes and what feelings come about and what physical memories are connected to the clothes.

In the project If you were a girl I would love you even more, Maja Gunn dresses a male friend in clothes that are traditionally considered feminine, for women. The project continues for a year and the man’s way of relating changes increasingly as time passes.
Pictures from the project If you were a girl I would love you even more will be exhibited at the Textile Museum in Borås during Pride Festival 30 June- 2 July. See the Textile Museum’s opening hours at their website.

‘I was inspired to do this project when the participating man expressed fear of seeming feminine and I thought about what defined perceptions exist on how a heterosexual man should dress. First, this person had a very strong resistance to be dressed in feminine clothes, even if it was just the two of us in the room. But his resistance diminished over time. Now, afterwards, he seems to have been positively affected by the project and sees himself and others in a new way.’

Utopian Bodies was an exhibition with the same name at Liljevalchs konsthall in Stocoholm recently (September 2015-February 2016) where designers from around the world participated. Maja Gunn participated with, among other things, specially made breast prostheses that the visitors could test-wear as well as an installation of men’s breasts in silicone.

Safety top for fire defence

A group of researchers works with a norm-critical project together with members of fire defence. Maja Gunn participates in the project to investigate the traditional uniform, which is adapted from the norm of a tall man. As a counterbalance, she constructed a traditionally female-coded garment: a protective top, The Safety Top. It looks like a sports bra and is to be equipped with technical functions such as heart rate measurement and GPs.

‘It is meant to be worn by all sexes’, says Maja Gunn. ‘Here there is a parallel in the reactions when a certain famous male Swedish football player wears a top with GP, a so-called GPS vest. Vest is a male-coded word that is used in particular to differentiate the garment from a sports bra, the form of which can be considered as identical, but which is female-coded. Outraged and surprised headlines were mixed with “calming” messages informing that the player was just wearing it to measure distances and not for any other purpose. In the project with safety tops, we work with three fire stations and a management team, and our work functions as, among other things, discussion material.’

Other projects have dealt with arranging clubs where visitors can put on clothes that refer to more or less historical queer-feminist events/periods and where the room that is visited has also been designed with connection to the theme. One of the clubs was called Sappho Island and had references to, among other things, Sappho and the island of Lesbos, with aesthetics from Greek mythology. Another one linked to activist groups during the 1980s and 90s. In the work with the queer blues, Maja Gunn collaborated with the art and architecture group MYCKET that initiated the project and which has continued to work with it with research support from the Swedish Research Council.

’Believe that change can occur through design’

She has also done a carnival/performance in Gothenburg as well as presented a project with the starting point of the idea that the flannel shirt is a lesbian identity marker and where more or less well-known people discuss this as well as ‘the male gaze’ and ‘the white gaze’ – the usual ways of looking and considering.

’Change can occur through design. But there are many aspects involved. I don’t believe that all change can occur through design, and some changes take time. But the participants in my projects have, in the end, said that they have been affected and changed through the project. I also believe that such projects can be eye-openers so that certain problems and questions receive more focus.’

Doctoral thesis

Title:  "Body Acts Queer: Clothing as a performative challenge to heteronormativity" (link to the full text of the doctoral thesis)
By: Doctoral student Maja Gunn
Doctoral defence: 21 June, 13.00–15.00 in Vestindien C, The Textile Fashion Center at the University of Borås.
Supervisor: Hanna Landin
Opponent: José Teunissen, University of the Arts, London

Don’t miss Maja Gunn in Forskningspodden!

In this season’s final episode of the university’s podcast Forskningspodden, Maja Gunn talks about her doctoral thesis and its many projects, on artistic research, and challenging norms. Listen to Forskningspodden (external link to the podcast player) - the podcast is in Swedish

Contact Maja Gunn:

Phone: 0739-24 11 77
E-mail: maja.gunn@gmail.com