Fashion exhibit cracks the codes behind the clothes we wear

Dress is more than just personal preference or self-expression — it can be a “potent social symbol,” say curators.


An exhibit now running in the Human Ecology Gallery shows how clothing can carry meanings that may reinforce social codes — or subvert them. (Photo courtesy Anne Bissonnette)

An exhibit now showing at the University of Alberta reveals the coded messages behind the clothes we wear, from expressing individual identity to highlighting larger societal issues of gender, class and culture.

Curated by Anne Bissonnette, a professor and dress historian in the Department of Human Ecology, and her current and former graduate students, Emma Carr, Josée Chartrand and Qi Wang, the exhibition was inspired by a New York Times article about Sophia Trevino, an eighth grader at Simpson Middle School in Cobb County, Georgia, who was sent home for wearing ripped jeans. When Trevino and others began wearing a T-shirt that said “Dress Codes are Sexist, Racist, Classist,” the story, and the teen, garnered national attention.

A version of that shirt was the first object from the Anne Lambert Clothing and Textiles Collection selected for the exhibition, entitled [De]Coded: Deciphering the Dialectics of Dress.

“Sophia’s protest challenged the institutionalized forms of sexism, racism and classism in American school dress code systems,” says Chartrand, an assistant professor in theatre production at MacEwan University who completed her master’s in human ecology in 2019 and has maintained a research partnership with Bissonnette. ”It was the catalyst for this project.”

Much like the dialects of a single language, how we dress is influenced by a number of factors, including time and place. Earlier examples of artifacts that challenged the prevailing culture of the time include platform shoes and embroidered jeans, a form of protest against traditional masculine norms of the 1960s and ’70s.

Dress is power

As the curators note, sex-based dress codes reinforce and reproduce traditional gender norms at the expense of individuals who don’t conform. “Some presume that dress is trivial, but those who harness fashion’s reach can dismantle antiquated social practices. Dress is power.”

“As dress scholars, we find evidence that supports the communicative power of clothing in everything that we study,” says Chartrand. “The challenge was to articulate this truth, and it took all four co-curators in the same room to summarize our collective understanding into these two sentences.”

Chartrand and Bissonnette developed the framework and selected most of the artifacts in the exhibition. Grad students Wang and Carr joined the team, contributing text and gaining practical experience in object mounting. Bissonnette had the final editorial review.

“We always think exhibitions will take less time than they do,” says Chartrand. “Curating an exhibition is so much more than displaying pretty garments. It’s about choosing the right objects to communicate the research, and supporting that story with the right words to further activate what is already being told visually.”

Weaving meaning into clothing

[De]Coded shines a light on issues that reinforce oppressive systems of power and privilege, note the curators, and aims to stimulate self-reflection on our own biases and beliefs. 

One of the artifacts is the familiar “red serge” dress uniform of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, which can be read as a symbol of national identity but, for some, can also be representative of an oppressive colonial system.

“Without words, the garment communicates a dualism of the horrors of colonialism experienced by Indigenous peoples and the fight to grieve and heal,” says Chartrand. “It is meant to spark reflection on how coded attire can be used as a platform to introduce serious issues including the impacts of colonialism and reconciliation initiatives.”

A traditional Indigenous ribbon dress — made by Janet Delorme, a Blackfoot woman from the Blood Tribe or Kainai Nation — is the most powerful piece in the exhibit, notes Chartrand.

“Ms. Delorme created her piece to represent missing and murdered Indigenous women,” Chartrand explains. “We invited her to share her thoughts with visitors about the process of creating the dress, and the text is presented in front of her piece so that visitors are able to read, in Ms. Delorme’s own words, how her experiences were interwoven into the creation of the garment. We are honoured by her generosity in allowing us to use this piece and her story in our exhibition.”

The RCMP uniform is paired with Delorme’s ribbon dress in the first section of the exhibition, says Chartrand, as an example of how a nuanced theme can be communicated with visuals, even if someone chooses not to read the accompanying text.

“This exhibition is unique in its interpretation and dissemination, which are both firmly grounded in the Edmonton community while still reaching global audiences.”

(De)Coded: Deciphering the Dialectics of Dress runs in the Human Ecology Gallery until March 1, 2023.