For Toronto-based artist Libby Oliver, clothing is a medium through which we communicate our identities and give meaning to the world around us. It is out of this concept that Oliver drew her inspiration for Soft Shells, a new portrait series in which individuals are photographed wearing every item of clothing they own.
Oliver, who specialises in photography and installation art, has always been interested in cataloguing ones’ objects as a way to question and challenge what we understand about a person. Soft Shells arose from her interest in “things” and how we use objects to identify ourselves and ground us to the world. “An object becomes meaningful and significant because of the value we, as individuals and in a social sense, place on it,” she explains.
In this series, models are seen camouflaged in their personal belongings, disappearing behind mounds of colourful and patterned clothing. While the individuals are almost completely covered by cloth, an arm, foot or face is often found peeking out, emphasising the human connection between the objects and their owners, and playing on the way we use fabric to both conceal and reveal elements of our identity.
According to the artist, models have ranged in age from four to 88 years old, with a mix of people Oliver knows well and some she doesn’t know at all. Her shoots are intimate experiences, in which she visits the models’ homes and surveys their closets; each item of clothing is first laid out on the bed or floor as the artist sorts and arranges them by colour and texture, and the subjects then stand still while Oliver layers them in their belongings, creating sculpture-like structures which are quickly photographed. “I enjoy the limitations set by a person’s wardrobe choices and the collaborative nature of it,” the artist says. “They stand there and I have a sort of specific sculpting technique. I need to move very quickly because it’s a rather suffocating experience and a bit of a strange power dynamic. It’s a big exercise in trust and vulnerability for sure.”
As Oliver orchestrates the arrangement of each subject’s things, Soft Shells further emphasises a point of tension between one’s fashioned individuality and the personal manipulation of their aesthetic. The portraits therefore question how we perceive others, and what we as individuals have control over when it comes to our appearance. “I’m hoping people consider how images and visual representations of people trigger judgement reactions, and how those judgements are often reliant on objects,” she says. “I’m not saying their judgements are wrong or right, because objects do hold valid social meaning. But just to consider the role of materials in perceiving a human. I think some self-reflection and critical thought on how we consume as individuals to try to communicate social messages.”
Though we exert a level of autonomy over our clothing choices, there are social consequences to the ways we dress. “The things we wear describe our culture, environment, class and status, religious affiliation, occupation and gender identity, to name a few,” Oliver argues. Seen through her lens, clothing emerges as a form of social surveillance – and while the body of work was not solely meant as a commentary on the state of the fashion industry, it does draw attention to the part we each individually play in mass consumption, highlighting one’s relationship with their possessions.
The project is still ongoing; Oliver hopes to bring it to different locations and create a cross-environmental comparison of the objects we own and wear. While the images have slowly been spreading over social media, there are limitations to viewing this work via the online platform. In person, the large, printed photographs tower over viewers, underscoring one’s relationship to our own bodies in a space, too.