“Replaceable Skins”

Included in the volume:
Mobility, Place, and Placemaking
Co-edited by Arijit Sen and Jennifer Johung
Ashgate Press, 2013

Without fully celebrating our nomadic release from territorial borders or longing nostalgically for a return to tightly localized communities, what does it mean, now in light of our multiple movements and temporary situations, to be in place and belong at home? Who gets to choose to be spatially situated, for however long, and who has that situation chosen for them? Cast from any stable infrastructure for being and belonging in place, and oftentimes socially invisible, those rendered homeless must rely on what can be carried on their own backs. This essay examines body encasements that skim the wearer’s surface or reproduce the skin, and that offer vulnerable structures and temporary systems of home.

Beginning in the early 1990s, the artist and activist Lucy Orta developed individual and then multiply-linked Refuge Wear in response to the first Gulf War, the following economic recession and the increasingly ignored problem of homelessness. Individual, expandable, remarkably colorful and reflective, Orta’s body architecture seeks to make visible the forced mobility of those without homes, calling attention to the socially outcast categorization of its wearers. For British fashion design label Vexed Generation, transformable and protective garment-shelters become urban armor that mask specific bodily features. Evicted from public sites, or not legally allowed to gather in force, wearers are afforded an anonymity that in turn offers the potential for publicly visible gatherings. In a similar negotiation of visibility and invisibility, fashion designer Hussein Chalayan has created garments that cover and move with the body, then secretly transform into furniture and coalesce into rooms, protecting and transporting the structures of home. Addressing the dispersal of individuals forced to flee, Chalayan offers the potential for social cohesion both in and out of the public eye. Launched across the practices of art, architecture, and fashion design, these contemporary second skins offer immediate, transportable shelter, while also proposing new systems for public housing that visibly situate wearers within a legitimate social framework.