This photo project brings new meaning to the phrase 'clothes make the man'

There are people under those piles — honest. They're just buried under every item of clothing they own. Take a look at Libby Oliver's Soft Shells photo series.

There are people under those piles — honest. They're just buried under every item of clothing they own

Installation view of Libby Oliver's Soft Shells at Arc.Hive Artist Run Centre in Victoria. (Courtesy of the artist)

At the current rate, it seems the human race is eventually going to choke on old T-shirts. With North Americans chucking 11 billion kilograms of hand-me-downs into the landfill each year, the world's drowning in fast fashion, and a quick look at these photos might leave you gasping for air already.

There's a person hiding under each of those piles — honest.

They're just buried in clothes. 

Their clothes.

Libby Oliver is the Victoria-based artist behind this ongoing portrait series. It's called Soft Shells, and she began the project last summer.

Each photo in the series is about a different person, and whether they're four years old or 88, Oliver photographs each subject along with their wardrobes — every sock, every shoe, every worn-out soccer jersey — ultimately wrapping them in cotton-poly blend cocoons.

She'll be bringing the project to Fashion Art Toronto in the spring. "I really like the idea of having them by the runway," she jokes.

When Oliver launched the project, though, she wasn't out to make a statement about consumerism out of control — and really, she says that's not the main idea behind the finished product, either.

It's just that when you're in a stranger's apartment, ransacking their closet like it's an episode of What Not to Wear without the one-liners, questions about fast fashion and materialism are bound to come up.

"Especially when you're going through the process of burying people alive in their objects," she laughs.

How much can you really understand about the true person underneath?- Libby Oliver, artist

Soft Shells, she says, is more about identity than shopping habits. Every day, people get the chance to express who they are to the world by doing the most ordinary thing imaginable: they just get dressed.

"Clothing and fashion is interesting because it does have so much cultural and social and environmental and self-identity tied up into it," says Oliver.

Take quick glance at any of the photos. You might not see any signs of life on the first pass — a hand, a nose, a tuft of hair. But you can guess who might be hiding underneath just by looking at their wardrobe, even when it's scrunched up in sculptural piles.

There's colour and texture, which is, it turns out, enough for the viewer to make a snap judgment on age, gender — or just whether they're dealing with a hippy or a jock.

You might not be right, though.

"How much of a person can you really understand through objects?" says Oliver. "You can tell some things. Clothing, it's a person's choice. You can understand maybe how they want to represent their gender or their culture or whatever, but yeah, how much can you really understand about the true person underneath?"

"It's such a contradictory thing that we all have to have a relationship with."

Take a look at more photos from Soft Shells.

Libby Oliver. "Leaf." 2017. (Courtesy of the artist)
Libby Oliver. "David." 2017. (Courtesy of the artist)
Libby Oliver. "Janine." 2017. (Courtesy of the artist)
Libby Oliver. "Tyrone." 2017. (Courtesy of the artist)
Libby Oliver. "Josie." 2017. (Courtesy of the artist)
Libby Oliver. "Florence." 2017. (Courtesy of the artist)
Libby Oliver. "Boma." 2017. (Courtesy of the artist)
Libby Oliver. "Alex." 2017. (Courtesy of the artist)

About the Author

Leah Collins

Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.

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