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  • Writer's pictureLeigh Gerstenberger

The Red Dress

As I’ve shared previously, I know more about fashion and fabric than most men my age. My grandmother was an accomplished seamstress who made wedding dresses for the tony Park Avenue set during the early 1900s. My mother sewed her own clothes and made outfits for my sister. My wife is an accomplished quilter and knitter. And my daughter has a degree in Fashion Design and made young boys’ clothes for Dillard’s before opening her own women’s boutiques.

All this to say that it’s not unusual for me to find myself from time to time at quilt shows, runway fashion events and needlework exhibits around the country. In fact, my wife and I already have tickets to QuiltCon this coming February in Raleigh, NC. This four-day extravaganza will keep her very occupied for our entire trip. I’ll be bringing my golf clubs and if the weather cooperates, hope to spend a few afternoons on the local links!

Therefore, I wasn’t surprised when my wife suggested we visit The Red Dress exhibit currently on display at The Frick Museum in the Point Breeze neighborhood of Pittsburgh recently. The exhibit which runs through January 28, 2024, includes work from nearly 400 embroiders from around the world who have all contributed to this spectacular garment. A description of the exhibit from The Red Dress website is below along with the link to the Frick Museum’s website where you can find more information on the current exhibit.

If you visit The Frick and have the time, there is also an extensive antique automobile collection on display year-round, a wonderful café and the opportunity to tour Clayton, the home of Henry Clay Frick and his daughter Helen.

A 14-year, award winning global, collaborative embroidery project 2009 to 2023

The Red Dress project, conceived by British artist Kirstie Macleod, 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. From 2009 to 2023, pieces of the Red Dress travelled the globe being continuously embroidered onto. Constructed out of 87 pieces of burgundy silk dupion, the garment 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 all 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 at various exhibitions & events. Embroiderers include female refugees from Palestine, Syria and Ukraine, women seeking asylum in the UK from Iran, Iraq, China, Nigeria and Namibia, survivors of war in Kosovo, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Rwanda, and DR Congo; impoverished women in South Africa, Mexico, and Egypt; individuals in Kenya, Japan, Turkey, Jamaica, Sweden, Peru, Czech Republic, Dubai, Afghanistan, Australia, Argentina, Germany, 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.

Initially the project sought to generate a dialogue of identity through embroidery, uniting people around the world without borders. However, over the 14 years the dress has also become a platform for self-expression and an opportunity for voices to be amplified and heard. Many of the embroiderers are established professionals, but there are also pieces created by first time embroiderers. The artists were encouraged to create a work that expressed their own identities whilst adding their own cultural and traditional experience. Some used specific styles of embroidery practiced for hundreds of years within their family, village, or town whilst others chose simple stitches to convey powerful events from their past. Some of the women are re-building their lives with the help of embroidery, by using their skill or being trained in embroidery to earn a decent and consistent living. The Red Dress has been exhibited in various galleries and museums worldwide, including Gallery Maeght in Paris, Art Dubai, Museo Des Arte Popular in Mexico City, the National Library of Kosovo, National Waterfront Museum in Wales, Fashion and Textile Museum, London, an event at the Royal Academy in London, and the Premio Valcellina Textiles award in Maniago, Italy where it won first prize in 2015.

The Red Dress’s 14-year creation journey around the world is now just about completed with the garment assembled in its final configuration. Covered in millions of stitches, the 6.8 kg. silk Red Dress is weighted as much by the individual stories and collective voices waiting to be heard as by the threads and beads that adorn it. Moving forward, as well as continuing to develop a strong online platform the Red Dress will be traveling to many different galleries, museums, and event spaces around the world - with a continued aim to be accessible to all. Kirstie hopes to bring the garment to visit the countries of all commissioned embroiderers, and exhibit the Red Dress alongside their own work in their chosen venue. Practical and logistical support with commissions for the project was provided by the following charities, self-help development projects, social enterprises and various initiatives providing support to women in poverty: Manchester Aid for Kosovo supporting Sister Stitch in Kosovo; Kisany in Rwanda and DR Congo; Missibaba in South Africa; Kitzen in Mexico; Al Badia in Lebanon supporting Palestinan refugees; FanSina in Egypt; the Swansea Women’s Asylum & Refugee Support Group, Wales and the War Childhood Musuem in Bosnia & Herzegovina. Seed investment for the project was provided by the British Council Dubai in 2009 and subsequent funding has been received by the Arts Council Lottery Fund & the British Embassy Pristina, Kosovo.

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