04/22/2014 08:37 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What One Gender-Bending Photographer Learned From Wearing Other People's Clothes

Since 2007, artist Caleb Cole has been dressing as other people, donning knitted dresses and oversized formalwear in a beautiful identity crisis acted out on film. The photo series that followed, "Other People's Clothes," is an emotional and comedic take on the concept of self-portraiture that explores the very literal act of stepping into another individual's shoes.

"When I am in public, I watch people going about their daily routines alone; I wonder about the lives they lead, wonder how they experience the world around them and how they make meaning of it," Cole writes in a statement about the series. "Though I am the physical subject of these images, they are not traditional self-portraits. They are portraits of people I have never met but with whom I feel familiar."


More than six years into the project, Cole -- who refers to himself as a "former altar server, scout, and 4-H Grand Champion in Gift Wrapping" -- has turned the series into a number of gallery exhibitions and a book. He's taken on the physical appearances of contemplative professors, injured athletes, photogenic beach beauties and chastised children. Using an impressive trove of found clothing, he conjures a strange sense of nostalgia. Even though we've never met the individuals who once wore these clothes, we yearn to know them and relate to them.

"The series often functions as a sort of Rorschach test allowing others to see the situations, emotions, identities, and narratives that make sense to them," Cole explained to HuffPost.

The ensembles, settings and poses differ greatly from one frame to the next, yet Cole's expression -- a seemingly disinterested stare that can communicate both despair and over-confidence -- remains eerily similar. "I don’t preplan emotions or gestures and I don’t limit what I do when I shoot," the artist noted. "The clothing itself guides my gestures (one moves differently in a tight latex outfit as opposed to a baggy wool suit) and though I usually have a loose idea of what I’m chasing after as far as the narrative and emotion, only through the process of actually shooting does the full story unfold."

It's difficult not to attach a narrative to Cole's photographs; to imagine a wild or woeful backstory for each of Cole's mysterious figures. With every gender-bending portrait, the viewer is lured into familiarity by sideways glances and over-the-shoulder eye contact, empathizing with the isolation and disconnectedness conveyed in each image.

"I think the most important thing I’ve learned has come not from the process of making the work itself, but rather putting the work out in front of others," Cole explained to HuffPost. "Hearing from people who have responded to the series reminds me that though we may feel isolated or alone, or think that our desires, fears, and struggles set us apart from others, it is precisely these feelings of separateness that we share as humans and should bring us closer together."

Other People's Clothes