LED Artist Elizabeth Tolson on Chastity Pledges, Slut-Shaming, and Her Light-Up Fertility Dress

Elizabeth Tolson

Seeing artist Elizabeth Tolson’s work is like taking a women’s studies class that glows. She wants her LED-lit dresses to raise your awareness about birth control and abortion laws, and she adds a big helping of humor. Tolson’s inventive. And she knows how far to take a bit. For her exhibit showcasing a dress that tracked menstruation cycles, she posed as a backward, majored-in-M.R.S.-type woman, passing out fake medical journals and advising 16-year-old girls on how to behave properly. She’s currently working on a dress for musicians with sound sensors that make it light up. All her performance pieces are interactive in some way. But now she wants her designs to be worn by real people, with a line for hairpieces and headdresses on Etsy. We rang up Tolson and she talked about her fascination with chastity pledges, alert-sounding bras, and headgear.

Tell me about your dress for musicians that you’re working on now.
It’s based on touch and interactivity between two people. I created a bunch of pyramids for the skirt portion of it. The way the dress is designed is it’s like a landscape of the female body. The hips are the pyramids and they’re a bit larger and they come down a little bit so they’re smaller. It’s stiff, and it stands on its own. The way it falls, I want it to be a little hard with sensors in the tips of the pyramids so that when you touch the tips, they light up. It’s about a very intimate interaction because for the piece to work, the other person has to be involved with it physically so it’s kind of uncomfortable, because people aren’t that likely to approach each other.

How does it compare to your headgear?
Well like my hats that have a sound sensor in them, I want these to have a mic that reacts to the beats and the level of volume with a crazy structure. These have arches and I embed the lights so that the sensor reacts to the music.

Photoshop example of lit up pyramids


How do you use the light?

The pyramid dress will have lights throughout the pyramids. I want it to react to the music so I’m interested in the light panning throughout the dress.

What materials do you use?

I use stretch cotton.

Is it hard to hide the technology?

Yeah I’m really into hiding it. Normally what I do is I double the fabric, which makes it sturdier because the electronics in the fabric sometimes just look like heavy. Sometimes I’ll even use three layers of fabric and put the circuits in between the sheets.

Why’d you pick white?
I’m trying to branch out and use more sheer multi-color fabrics, but I use different colored LEDs and the white works really well with the reflections. The fabric is thin enough to get the color out, but it’s also thick enough to show the shadows so I really enjoy that.

What about for people who want to wear this stuff? Some of it could be worn by a rambunctious person to a warehouse party.
So I’m trying to get this whole Etsy shop together. I’ve been working on little hairpieces and headdresses to wear out. I’ve been practicing with doing more organic looking flowers with the lights in them. One headpiece has fiber optics. Before, I had been using lanterns. I use sheer fabric and then you put the LED’s on the side to diffuse the light, but for the flowers if you take conductive thread and use a touch sensor, that works. You would pretty much take pieces of the thread, sew the fabric and loop them up. You have two strips of conductive fabric on either side, and when they touch it kind of creates the circuit with the flowers and little pieces of thread coming up, so when you touch it with a rubbing motion it lights up.

The Fertility Dress

You made a dress that claimed to track the menstruation cycle of the woman who wore it. What was the genesis of that idea?
It all started when I created something called a purity pillow that sounded an alert when it got too hot [to protect women from assault.] During that time, I was doing a lot of reading. I’m living in the city, and I’m dating, and my mother would send me these really insane dating books about how women should behave.

What do the books recommend?
That women should always smile, women should always look happy, they should wear a little bit of makeup, but not too much, and I’m like “who writes these books and who gives them to their daughters?”

What did you read that shocked you?

I started reading about chastity and purity, and I read Jessica Valenti’s Full Frontal Feminism. She dives into chastity pledges.

What can you tell me about those?

It’s the daughters pledging their virginity to their fathers. In some of the situations, the father gives the daughter a heart locket and the father has the key. He’ll give this little key necklace to her husband when she gets married. It’s the ownership of the daughter being transferred from the father to the husband, so that’s what’s happening right now.

Weddings can be pretty patriarchal, but that’s a new one.

I was really surprised. At first, I was like, “I don’t think it exists.” This is insane. But parents aren’t teaching their daughters about safe sex. It’s “sex is bad, don’t have it. If you do, then you’re going to be a whore.” It’s the whole idea of slut-shaming and depression within girls that they’re no longer worthy. These people are creating all these myths. I respect their beliefs, but they should be educating kids about them instead of saying ‘you can only do it this way.’

What was your intent with the Fertility dress?

I really wanted to show what the body’s going through as a comment on how women should take care of themselves and be able to conceive a child at all times. It was a representative of the thinking that when a girl reaches a certain age, she needs folic acid, a strict healthy diet, she needs to exercise, and she shouldn’t be drinking alcohol or eating inappropriately.

What kind of comments did you get?

I had a critique and this woman thought I was totally insane. She was a guest critic that came in right before my final opening. She was like, “who is this woman who believes that girls should be wearing this?” I started pretending to be this woman from the Midwest who got married out of college, and I behaved in a stereotypical way. She believes women should behave a certain way. I would present it very seriously, and I created these fake medical journals to say, “congratulations you’ve reached 16 and you’re wearing your chastity dress.”

How does that objectification translate?
So the final result of the Chastity dress had sensors so when the girl in it was touched inappropriately, sensors went off to remind her of how she should behave. It was creating an audience for the girl as an object because she needs to watched over. It was a way for people to be aware of her actions, but she also needs to be aware. I also created a bra that has sensors so if you push her chest it creates a high-pitched noise.

How did you think it looked on?
I wanted it to be revealing like you’re putting this daughter up on this pedestal and sexualizing her, but still being like, ‘no you can’t be around her. I watched those pageants where the parents take these cute little girls and layer them with makeup and put them on the stage, and that’s why the lights face inward, to illuminate the body.

So wearable technology is having a moment now. How’d you learn it?
At Parsons, I took soft circuitry. I learned about implementing electronics into clothing with connective threads, connective fabrics and simple switches in your clothes. Like metal snaps can be a break in a circuit and when you snap them together, that completes the circuit or you turn a light on and create a sound.

They look like runway things you love but couldn’t necessarily wear. How did you go about figuring out the look of the dress?
At fist I said, ‘oh I want this to be a giant hoop circle and crazy elaborate almost like a wedding dress, but then I was like no that’s not going to work.’ I just didn’t like the style of it and I was looking more in retro futurism, a way to say, ‘this is the future what is going to look like, so really hyped up and over the top as a way to say this is the future, this is what it’s going to be like.

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