Meet the famous dress you’ve never heard of

For 14 years, a collaborative embroidery project has been travelling the globe. Now, it’s finished, and on a world tour.

Question: What’s red, beautiful and has travelled the world?

Answer: A dress, but not just any dress. Meet the Red Dress.

You probably know the old riddle “what’s black and white and red all over?” (to which the answer is a newspaper). But, unless you move in particular circles, you have probably never heard of the Red Dress.

And that’s a pity, because it deserves to be much more widely known than it is.

I know about it because I sew things, crochet and (when I have time) make quilts. I belong to a small group of like-minded women, called the Silvermine Stitchers, which meets once a month to do handwork, talk and support each other. We aren’t affiliated with the local quilting guild but we sometimes attend their events. And some of our members also belong to the Cape Embroiderers’ Guild.

And in this small world, almost exclusively populated by women, the Red Dress is a big deal.

So what’s the deal then?

The collaborative art project that is the Red Dress has been going for 14 years. From 2009 to 2023, pieces of the Red Dress travelled the globe, with embroidery added to them everywhere they went. The project “provides an artistic platform for women around the world, many of whom are vulnerable and live in poverty, to tell their personal stories through embroidery”, says the dress’s website.

The dress in numbers and countries:

  • It’s made from 87 pieces of burgundy silk dupion.
  • It has been worked on by 367 women/girls, 11 men/boys and 2 non-binary artists from 51 countries.
  • All 141 commissioned embroiderers were paid for their work, and receive a portion of ongoing exhibition fees, merchandise, and the opportunity to sell their work through the Red Dress Etsy shop. (The rest of the embroidery was added by willing audience members at various exhibitions & events.)
  • Embroiderers include refugees, asylum seekers, survivors of war, impoverished women and students.

One South African, Noayini Nogemane, pictured below, from Kayamandi near Stellenbosch contributed to the dress, embroidering scenes from her community in 2010.

Picture by Missibaba

The dress was completed in 2023, and is now on a world tour – which includes South Africa. This news has electrified the quilting and embroidery community country-wide, and people everywhere are making plans to go and see it at the national quilting festival from July 5-9 in Pietermaritzburg and at a gallery in Stellenbosch on July 13 (details at the bottom of the article). Sadly, Noayini Nogemane has passed away and will not be at the exhibition, but her family will be there.

What the dress means

The dress is the brainchild of Kirstie Macleod, an artist from the UK. She told me in a voice note that she has always been preoccupied by inequality. “I grew up in different countries around the world – born in Venezuela, moved to Nigeria, Japan, Holland, Canada and then spent time in England at boarding school with my sisters. We were exposed to contrasting cultures and dialogues and languages and traditions and types of food and colour.

“All that ignited in me a desire to keep on reaching out to different cultures and communities around the world. As I got older and became an artist, I focused a lot on creating large scale installations, films and animations alongside painting and textile work – with themes of identity and on the voices of women. The focus on women’s rights and social justice grew and I decided in 2009 to dedicate a piece of work to trying to bring people together. There is so much inequality, prejudice, so much suffering – it was just the desire to do the opposite. But I had no idea that it could possibly become what it did, that was an incredible surprise.”

Macleod began steering the dress towards more and more vulnerable communities, to charities supporting women: it became a platform for expression and for voices to be heard, she says.

The intention of displaying the dress in Stellenbosch is to honour Nogemane’s contribution. “I was put in touch with her by local artist Chloe Townsend via a mutual friend. Chloe is helping me with organising this trip to South Africa, which is fantastic.”

She says of Nogemane’s embroidery on the dress: “It’s snapshots of her life in the township. What’s particularly interesting about her stitching is that she fills spaces in spirals. In most other embroideries there are very specific fill stitches used and they’re pretty much always in geometric lines. But she’s filled her spaces with spirals, which is just so vibrant and exciting and powerful.”

Detail from Noayini Nogemane’s embroidery, picture by Kirstie Macleod

It’s award-winning – but it’s more than that

The Red Dress has been exhibited in various galleries and museums worldwide. It’s been in Paris, Dubai, Mexico City and London, and at the Premio Valcellina Textiles award in Maniago, Italy where it won the 8th Premio Valcellina award in 2015.

But that’s not why I will be going to see it on July 13. For me the dress resonates with the reason why I like sewing and patchwork and crochet. Using my hands, and the material I have to hand, I watch as something comes alive in front of me. I see patterns emerge and take shape and become something bigger than the individual elements that went into the making of my work.

And that’s what the dress does: it takes the pain and the suffering and the thoughts and dreams and hopes of all the people who worked on it, and makes them visible for all to see, glowing and glorious.

I can’t wait to see it!

Where you can see the dress

People attending the quilt festival will be able to see the dress in Pietermaritzburg.

The garment will be on display at iThemba Stellenbosch CraftArt Gallery  on July 13, 2024, 10am – 6pm. The dress code is ‘Red’ and there’ll be live music and textile crafts from the Stellenbosch community, as well as The Red Dress itself with accompanying documentation, video, and photographs. The word ‘iTHEMBA’ means hope in isiXhosa. The gallery maintains a balance between art, craft, community projects and promoting Stellenbosch itself. 

Main picture: Lekazia Turner in the Red Dress, photographed by Mark Pickthall, picture supplied by Kirstie Macleod

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