Switcheroo and the power of clothes

Thursday 31 October 2013

Hanna Pesut, an artist from Canada, recently conducted a photo project in which she took pictures of heterosexual couples wearing each other’s clothes. Discussion about Hana Pesut's project has recently gone viral in the social media, where it came to my attention. I found it was an instant source of teaching inspirations, and so I wanted to share it on with readers here.

Hana’s method was simple and inspired; she took a first picture of the couple dressed in their usual attire, then ask them to change clothes with each other, and repeat the original pose for a second photo to be displayed alongside the first. She called this photo pair a ‘switcheroo’.  People found the initial compositions so interesting, Hana developed the project further, ending up doing ‘switcheroo’ shoots all over the world, and finally publishing the results in a book called (unsurprisingly) Switcheroo.

To my mind, this project seems to create interest because the switcheroo reveals the symbolic power of clothing and posture. The comments made by members on the public on the web pages where the photos appear are almost as revealing to the student of semantics as the photos themselves. Many who comment note that the women seem to be able to ‘carry off’ the male clothes (that they look good or attractive in them), while the men appear somehow stupid or unattractive in the women’s clothes. There are a number of comments pointing out that the men might look better if the clothes were bigger or fit better; however, this ignores the fact that the women post switch are generally wearing male clothes which are too big for them. It also fails to acknowledge that the women’s original clothes are often very tight on them, too. The Language and Literature student has to ask, how far is it the case that a feminine pose or outfit looks ‘wrong’ when adopted by a man because of the sub-textual messages of weakness or powerlessness attached to women’s appearance choices?

I think the semantics of appearance make an excellent study focus for Language and Literature students. The skills of reading dress and body language form a part of many possible topics of study fitting in part 1 or part 2 of the course. Paper 1, of course, calls on these skills, as students must analyze texts containing images; in the case of higher level students, there may even be a requirement for students to analyze an image without any written text at all. Exploring Hana Pesut’s work could provide an interesting and accessible way to introduce some of the key skills and concepts students will need to call on in the examination. Even more interesting, as Hana’s work crosses national and cultural borders, it could provide a link to the study of works in translation for part 3, and so to the contextual and thematic questions to be met on paper 2.

Hanna’s work may be viewed in many places on the internet - and of course her book would be a good title to include in the library.  Starting a study topic with a tour of the photos and the articles written about them is fascinating possibility. Students might study the ‘before’ photos and list features of dress and posture they consider particularly feminine or masculine, powerful or weak. They could then reconsider and discuss their list when they view the ‘after’ picture. Other ideas might include creating photos which challenge gender stereotypes, or creating written tasks inspired by Hana Pesut’s work (perhaps a short story or script in which gender signifiers are switched). There are lots of possibilities.

Happy switcherooing!

Tags: #gender, #stereotypes, #part1, #part2, #semantics, #switcheroo, #pesut


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