“What were you wearing?”

It’s a simple question. Except that it’s not. Most women recognize it for what it is: a thinly veiled accusation that a victim brought an act of sexual assault upon herself by the type of clothes she had on.

Katherine Cambareri confronts the question in her series of photographs — bluntly titled “Well, What Were You Wearing?” — that are part of Material Culture, on exhibit through Oct. 29 at the William Rolland Gallery of Fine Art at California Lutheran University. Cambareri’s photographs of sneakers, T-shirts and other ordinary clothing are not especially profound. When considered in the context of her work, however, the meaning and implications of the images come into focus like an oncoming train, revealing the injustice, absurdity and cruelty of the question in particular and rape culture in general.

Such is the power of clothing to cut to the heart of a matter. To think, we often take it for granted, looking only at the surface when some of the most meaningful and provocative aspects of clothing are invisible: the social norms, preconceptions, biases and expectations it either supports or challenges. As the literature for the exhibit says, “Cloth and clothing play an integral role in our cultural interpretation of the world around us.” The artists featured in the exhibit succeed in challenging our interpretations of social issues, personal loss and the very nature of human connectedness.

Artist Teresita de la Torre’s “365 Days in an Immigrant’s Shirt” is a collection of “illustrations, thoughts, reactions” and photographs that document a performance art project. While volunteering along the California-Mexico border with an organization called Water Station, de la Torre found a shirt left behind by a migrant. She wondered what had happened to its owner, and as a “conscious political act and protest,” decided to wear the shirt for a year to “spark conversation about the human element of immigration.” Her belief that an article of clothing could symbolize not only one person’s journey, but an entire movement, was confirmed when she began receiving photos and remnants of clothing that people saved to preserve their own immigration story.

Farther along in the exhibit, if you’re not careful, you might not notice the piles of white blouses until you almost step on them. Perhaps that is intentional on the part of the artist, Mandy Cano Villalobos: The blouses, featured in her piece “Voces,” represent the often overlooked victims of femicide in Chihuahua, Mexico. Each blouse is embroidered with the name of one of the victims, except for one blouse that bears the word “Desconocida” (Spanish for unknown) to honor the women so badly mutilated that their bodies were unidentifiable. 

“The Hijab Series: What if . . . ” is part of Yemeni photographer Boushra Almutawakel’s Hijab Series. The photos show a woman in a hijab sitting next to a man. As the photos progress, the man takes on the hijab and the woman takes on street clothes. Almutawakel says of the photographs, “I want to be careful not to fuel the stereotypical, widespread negative images most commonly portrayed about the hijab in the Western media. Especially the notion that most, or all, women who wear the hijab are weak, oppressed, ignorant and backwards.”

Some works represent an artist’s personal catharsis or history. “Transient Threads,” by Ofelia Marquez, helped the artist work through the death of her nephew. Brankica Zilovic Chauvain created “New Scalps,” a series of textile pieces, in response to her father’s illness. “Pagan Man,” also by Zilovic Chauvain, is an impressive figure with colorful textiles pooling and seemingly expanding at its feet. According to the artist’s web site, “Pagan Man”links emotion and anatomy with the artist’s tie to the history of Serbia.”

Thoughtfully curated by Rachel Schmid, Material Culture is a small exhibit that makes an outsize impression, not just because of the caliber of the artwork, but because of the level of thought and conversation it inspires as well.

Material Culture is on exhibit through Oct. 29 at the William Rolland Gallery of Fine Art, California Lutheran University, 160 Overton Court, Thousand Oaks. For more information, call 493-3697 or visit https://rollandgallery.callutheran.edu.