By Suzanne Cheavens
It all started with a box containing 1,000 condoms. Once in Kathleen Morgan’s hands, the noble function of the humble condom became wearable art. Each year those wondrous rubber raiments have fluttered down the runway. They’ve fetched thousands of dollars during the post-fashion show auctions. Their beauty is undeniable, and their transition from tools of effective prevention of sexually transmitted diseases (and unwanted pregnancies), to works of art could only happen under Morgan’s guidance.
When the AIDS Benefit offered her a box of condoms 10 years ago, the timing was right. “I decided that I had time to make one stellar outfit but only under the self-imposed requirement that it would bring in a good amount of money for TAB,” she remembered. “With a box of 1,000 multi-colored condoms, we were off to the races!”
Morgan’s work has been a component of the TAB Fashion Show nearly every year since 1996, when she created the Free Box Fashion line. Full of whimsy, romance and the explosions of her wild imagination, her wearables have ranged from ball gowns to flapper dresses, tuxedos to bikinis.
TAB: Are condoms difficult to work with?
Kathleen Morgan: “Yes and no! Lubricated condoms are impossible but non-lubricated ones are a lot less challenging and won't clog my sewing machine. In mass, they are incredible to run your hands though - soft and cool to the touch. I use the fattest needles made for standard (non-industrial) sewing machines and sew with a mixture of cotton-polyester thread and plastic thread—essentially very thin fishing line.”
TAB: How many condoms go into any one piece?
KM: “At the beginning I started with about 300 but in the past few years I've used about 1,000 condoms per outfit. Garments get pretty heavy at that amount!”
TAB: Do you have a preferred brand?
KM: “As long as they're non-lubricated, they're my friends. Some brands have silver wrappers, which also serve to make lovely wrapper handbags. I like to make these for the Art Auction every year as well. A few years ago, I found black non-lubricated condoms in bulk—1,000 pieces for quite cheap. Turns out they are sold to the music industry to put on microphones at outdoor concert venues. Who knew?”
TAB: Do you think your condom wear creations have educational benefits?
KM: “Absolutely. These creations have the power to create conversation about many aspects of HIV/AIDS. Each piece has drawn me into discussions about people’s personal experience with HIV/AIDS, the challenges of living with the disease, data on infection rates in various social groups, the heartbreak of losing their friends and family and on and on.”
TAB: Robert Presley, you've stated many times, is a major influence. What about his work most inspires you?
KM: “Robert created with pure excitement at all times and chafed at limits. His intense passion to visually gratify himself and his audience sent him in search of materials of high texture, color, contrast and interest and all without ever thinking that the carpet on the floor was actually a carpet. That carpet was the lining of a fabulous jacket or the needed trim on a hat. Working with Robert meant living in a world of possibilities, and not that of expected use, rules and regulations. His work was also rooted in thorough research of historical garment design and construction, which fit my logical head quite well.”
TAB: Tell us about your background as an advocate for HIV/AIDS awareness and education.
KM: “By sheer luck, in 1990 I lived in Provincetown, MA, a small town with a very large and active gay community that was at the forefront of providing services without shame to those with the disease. That community was a light for many at the darkest time in their lives. Having just graduated from a conservative Catholic college, I went from having absolutely no contact with HIV/AIDS issues to interacting daily with death, dignity and love. Here in the rural West and in many corners of the world, HIV/AIDS is still greeted with the same fear and lack of quality public health information as existed 25 years ago. I believe in TAB's mission and know that education is the answer to lowering infection rates, improving the quality of life for those affected and shining light into the darkness.”