“As far as I know, this is the slowest dress that has ever been made. It’s a real antithesis to the fast fashion movement and instead of treating workers and artisans without respect and integrity, in this dress the artisans are elevated to centre stage. They are the piece, they are the dress,” says British artist Kirstie Macleod who created the iconic Red Dress that has been travelling the world for the past 13 years. Along the way, the dress has picked up the embroidered stories of 343 embroiders, in 46 countries.
Conceived by Kirstie, the Red Dress Project is a dialogue of identity that provides an artistic platform for women around the world to tell their story through embroidery. “It’s about bringing together as many different voices and identities from around the world as I could to create one united voice without borders and boundaries,” she says.
Listening to Kirstie talk took me on a journey of my own, as she recalled the humble beginnings of her personal art project that has grown into an internationally revered archive of embroidered artistry.
“What I love about embroidery is that it is accessible to almost anyone as long as you have a needle and a thread, you can embroider, express, and stitch,” says Kirstie. She first learnt to embroider when she was nine, while she was living in Nigeria. Since then, she has been drawn to it as an accessible mode for making, as well as the slowness it requires which feels almost meditative.
But, beyond the personal, embroidery is also an ancient practice that has roots in many different cultures and countries. It has a deeply political significance as a practice that is often disregarded as “women’s work” or dismissed as “a craft”. “It’s used as a very effective healing modality around the world. It’s used as a way of expressing, subverting, coming together in community,” says Kirstie. And so, each stitch is infused with intention.
These layers of cultural significance and intention-filled stitching are what initially drew Kirstie to create a passion project that aims to create a dialogue of identity. Little did she know that her “little art project” would extend much deeper and further than she could imagine.
The project began small. In the beginning, Kirstie sent out a vast number of emails to contacts she had built up in London, and global connections she had made while growing up in many places across the world. “It wasn’t very easy at the beginning, because the dress didn’t look like it does now. As momentum grew, it got much easier. And, for the last few years, people would write to me asking to work on the dress.” Piece by piece, Kirstie began sending out panels of silk for artisans to work on, across the world.
Part of what is so enchanting about The Red Dress is that it speaks to the potential of clothing to be a wearable archive and a social commentary. Each artisan had complete freedom to decide what they wanted to embroider. This was very important to Kirstie, because she wants the dress to be a platform for them to be able to express something that they wanted to say, to be heard, and then to be shared.
In many ways, embroidery and expression through textiles becomes a shared, non-verbal, language of expression. This becomes clear when Kirstie shares about her time travelling through India. “I ended up connecting with various Karnatakan people along the way and stitching next to them. I found this incredibly powerful, because we weren’t really speaking in words, but it was just this shared love of stitching, textiles, and embroidery,” says Kirstie.
For 13 years, from 2009 to 2022, the Red Dress has been worked on by 336 women and 7 men with all 136 commissioned artisans paid for their work. The rest of the embroidery was added by willing participants and the audience at various exhibitions and events.
Embroiderers include women refugees from Palestine and Syria; victims of war in Kosovo, Rwanda, and DR Congo; women in South Africa, Mexico, and Egypt; individuals in Kenya, Japan, Turkey, Sweden, Peru, Czech Republic, Dubai, Afghanistan, Australia, Argentina, Switzerland, Canada, Tobago, Vietnam, Estonia, USA, Russia, Pakistan, Wales, Colombia and England, students from Montenegro, Brazil, Malta, Singapore, Eritrea, Norway, Poland, Finland, Ireland, Romania, and Hong Kong as well as upmarket embroidery studios in India and Saudi Arabia.
The South African contribution was created by Ayo Amon Demi (who has since passed on) from the Kayamandi township. Kirstie initially reached out to Chloe Townsend, of Missibaba, who worked with Ayo, and asked her if she wanted to be a part of the Red Dress Project. “Her work is little snippets of her life and scenes from what I imagine she saw in the township. So, women looking after babies, farmers ploughing field, pounding yams, musical instruments. It’s all very beautifully vibrant and is admired all the time,” says Kirstie.
Interestingly, Kirstie never intended to focus on the embroidered stories of women. It was a path that the project organically took. “After a few years of the project, I found it incredible to connect, although indirectly, with these women and I then began to seek out more and more initiatives that were supporting women through embroidery,” says Kirstie. Without her setting the intention, the project was gently steered in a direction that aligned with her feminist work and the desire to be able to create a platform that allowed women to express themselves honestly and authentically, across borders.
But, it hasn’t always been easy. Kirstie recalls many despondent moments, thousands of unanswered emails, funder rejections, and financial instability. Despite it all, she continued to put energy, time, and love into the project and trusted that everything would unfold as it was meant to – and so it did. “It hasn’t been some massive, high-budget piece of work. It has been made with struggle. But, I am so grateful for this, because I think this makes it what it is,” says Kirstie.
How far and wide the Red Dress has travelled and what it has become continually humbles Kirstie. “I am very humbled now by how far the dress has reached and by how much it means to so many people and the impact that it continually has on people from all over the world,” says Kirstie.
Over the last three years the dress has been fixed and finished in its creation. Kirstie has slowly incorporated all the silk panels from different artisans into the dress, and it will soon begin its tour around the world.
“I hope that the Red Dress is a wake-up call for people and that it can help people to feel into their own relationship with clothing and artisans,” ends Kirstie.
In our culture of speed and disposability, it is unheard of to spend over a decade creating one garment. But, the story of the Red Dress is a tale that reminds us that a garment contains the stories of all those whose hands it has passed through – and there is so much beauty in remembering that clothing is more than just a temporary adornment. These threads hold stories.
- Image 1 & 2: Photo by Dave Watts; Image 3: Kisany Artisan contribution from the Democratic Republic of Congo photographed by Sophia Schorr-kon; Image 4: Embroidery group in Aguacatenango Mexico_dress worn by Vanessa Aguilar Juarez photographed by Kirstie Macleod; Image 5: Ayo Amon Demi in South Africa photographed by Chloe Townsend; Image 6: Red Dress worn by UK artisan Freya Lusher photographed by Sophia Schorr-kon
- To learn more about The Red Dress, and to view the map of artisans, take a look at The Red Dress website.
- Once the Red Dress begins its tour around the world, the commissioned artisans will receive an annual share of 50% of all exhibition fees.