Shaping an identity behind bars
At an exhibition in New York, the lived experience of fashion while incarcerated is at the forefront.
In 2013, Jonathan Alvarez embarked on his own ethnographic research while incarcerated. As a member of Bard Prison Initiativea prison education program at Bard College in New York, he began researching the topic of prison fashion.
“He took on a life of his own,” he recalls. “In my research, I was able to understand the kinds of conversations that were happening around fashion in New York State establishments, and I was able to examine the perspective of anti-fashionistas and pro- fashionistas in the incarcerated space.”
Eight years later, this research has come to life in the form of Clothing Inside: Addressing US Prisonsa New York exhibit showcasing the material conditions of life behind bars, including prison uniforms, shoes, handcuffs and feminine hygiene products.
Alvarez co-curated the exhibit, which was shown at Parsons New School last September, with Tzuni Lopez, a Parsons lecturer, and Rashida Ricketts, host and producer of the Garden Graves Podcast. They plan to expand the work and exhibit Clothing Inside in new spaces.
“I’m in kind of a shock at how far this idea came,” says Alvarez. “We saw how this vision came to life, expanded, developed and took different directions.”
The resulting exhibition is multidimensional and touches on the many material experiences of incarceration. Testimonials from former incarcerated people run through the main gallery, which includes clothing alongside various objects, information about their meaning and an oversized display of a list of prison commissioners. Outside the gallery are other prison uniforms, a “wall of t-shirts” with anti-jail political shirts from different organizing collectives and paintings by Sabri Al Qurashi, who was detained for 12 years without charge at Guantanamo Bay.
Alvarez, Ricketts, and Lopez met while studying fashion at Parsons New School: Ricketts’ graduation thesis focused on incarcerated women’s experiences with clothing and other material objects; Lopez studied conservation; Alvarez has studied fashion trends and urban poverty. They quickly discovered that there was little fashion research in prison and pledged to change that.
To begin, they immersed themselves in political and abolitionist texts around mass incarceration, including that of Angela Davis “Freedom is a Constant Struggle” and “Decarcerating Disability” by Liat Ben-Moshe.
“Prison in the United States is something so hidden from the public eye, but by using fashion and clothing, we could potentially get people to have a level of understanding and empathy for what it was” , says Lopez.
“It wasn’t just the clothes we wanted to focus on,” Ricketts notes. “We also wanted to think about things like handcuffs, sanitary napkins, things that people put on their bodies and the lived experience of that.”
Parsons New School accepted their proposal to exhibit in a university gallery in the spring of 2020; the exhibition was delayed until this year due to the pandemic. The extended time frame ended up being “a blessing,” says Ricketts, “because we were able to extend the research we had.” They also organized a fundraiser to support their work and started a Clothing Inside newsletter to share their findings.
Collecting the objects required considerable effort. “When we started this process, the number one item we wanted to have on hand was uniforms – we had no idea how difficult that would be,” says Ricketts. “It lends to the idea of invisibility and maintaining barriers between people who are behind bars.” Ricketts bought eight uniforms – two coveralls and six trouser/shirt combinations – after cold calling the distributor Phoenix Supply, but the company would not accept a new order. Unable to secure the handcuffs, the team purchased a party store replica.
Building on Alvarez’s work, the team wanted to show how incarcerated people reclaim their identity in uniform. In a uniform display, Alvarez’s own white polo shirt is set against “state green” jail pants. The exhibit also talks about the importance of the prison ‘tailor’, who helps people alter their green clothes.
“There is transgressive consumption, transgressive acts against the state,” Alvarez says. “What many think is insignificant actually matters a lot to people incarcerated.”
Lopez connected with the group Abolition now OC, which provides mutual aid to people leaving the Theo Lacy facility in Orange County: “I emailed them after seeing a paper jumpsuit on one of their social media.” Individuals leaving prison are required to wear the jumpsuit if the facility determines that their clothing for returning to free society is “unsuitable”. The collective lent a jumpsuit and a few other items, including a DIY wallet made from materials collected inside the prison.
Other elements focus on women’s experience of incarceration. The team connected with artist and Ear Hustle podcast co-host Nigel Poor, who collects bra underwire dumped in the parking lot of San Quentin State Prison. (Women cannot wear underwired bras in prison visiting rooms.) Her collection was loaned for the exhibition. They also displayed feminine hygiene products.
“What we found throughout our interviews with different people was that they had very limited access to sanitary napkins,” Ricketts says. “They also found ways to use these items, not just for menstruation…because their shoes were very uncomfortable to walk in, they covered their shoes with sanitary napkins.”
Lopez, Ricketts and Alvarez all agree that the most powerful part of the exhibit is the installation of a minimalist prison cell, complete with clothesline – a common setup that is actually against prison rules. . Underwear hangs on the clothesline, with recordings of testimonies from former inmates broadcast from above.
“Being in this structure, hearing the interviews, one of the most important things for me is that people’s voices are heard,” says Ricketts. “Hearing firsthand about people who have been through this, you come away with a different perspective on the objects in the gallery space.”
Throughout the month, the team used the exhibit to spark dialogue and awareness around the many injustices of mass incarceration. By displaying the politicized “t-shirt wall” in a hallway frequented by New School students and faculty, “we wanted people to think about ways to integrate abolition into their daily lives,” says Lopez .
Formerly incarcerated people and relatives of incarcerated people shared their insights, feedback and what the team missed. “It generated such a rich conversation that made us tap into our lived experience,” Alvarez says of the exposure with men he was incarcerated with. “Part of that conversation was – ‘yo, you should have caught that!’ I have had experience, but I also have blind spots in my creative practice.
With this in mind, the team plans to develop Clothing Inside. They will launch a website, continue their newsletter and this year will host events around the theme of prison fashion. “Our network has expanded, due to this existence in public, and that’s going to affect future iterations and include more people in the conversation,” Lopez says. Currently, the curators are actively looking for other venues to present the exhibition.
“I can’t wait to see, once we take this to another space, what kind of impact we’ll have there and what conversations we can spark,” Alvarez says.