Stunning Red Dress Made by 370 Artisans in 50 Countries Over 13 Years Tells Women’s Stories

Stunning Red Dress Made by 370 Artisans in 50 Countries Over 13 Years Tells Women’s Stories
(Courtesy of Sophia Schorr-kon and Kirstie Macleod)

Over 13 years, an intricate project conceived by a British artist has come together with help from 370 artisans in 50 different countries around the world. The project, The Red Dress, is a stunning floor-length gown constructed out of 84 pieces of burgundy silk dupion, honoring women’s stories across cultures and celebrating the power of togetherness.

The dress was the brainchild of Kirstie Macleod, 41, a textile artist who lives with her partner and three children in Somerset, England. Born into a family of skilled stitchers, knitters, and makers, Macleod traveled and lived in many countries across the world as a child since her father worked in energy. At the age of nine, she learned to embroider from an Indian woman while living in Nigeria.

Macleod later earned a Bachelor of Arts in Textile Design followed by a Master of Arts in Visual Language & Performance before beginning her career as a fine artist while living in London.

(Courtesy of <a href="">Kirstie Macleod</a>)
(Courtesy of Kirstie Macleod)

‘Space to Dream’

“The Red Dress began in 2009,” Macleod told The Epoch Times. “I was given the opportunity to bring a new piece of work to Art Dubai. I was given funding [from the British Council] before I had decided on a piece, which is the opposite way around to usual ... so it just allowed me this amazing space to dream.”

Macleod came up with the idea of The Red Dress while scribbling on the back of a napkin in a café. The piece, she dreamed, could unite people from around the world and celebrate identity, while also providing a platform for voices to be shared and heard.

“I was so saddened and I guess, at times, despairing with the state of the world,” Macleod said, “and I wanted to create a piece of work that had no boundaries, no prejudice, no hierarchies, that would simply bring people together.”

She bought a large quantity of burgundy silk dupion from Paris, France—which she believes came from India—for the body of the dress and settled on a design that she felt looked “feminine and empowered.” Wanting the dress to appear timeless, she balanced a corseted waist and expansive skirt with a plunging neckline, stiff collar, and military-style detailing.

“I wanted the dress to look really powerful and strong,” she said.

(Courtesy of <a href="">Kirstie Macleod</a>)
(Courtesy of Kirstie Macleod)

Next came the task of enlisting contributors. Macleod, who once tutored at the Royal School of Needlework in London, drew on her network of contacts to get the ball rolling, plus she contacted her parents’ connections and friends from their time spent living abroad.

Before long, she received requests from individuals and charities wanting to join the project.

139 commissioned embroiderers were paid for their work and now continue to receive a portion of all ongoing exhibition fees, merchandise, and the opportunity to sell their work through the Red Dress Etsy shop.

While the rest of the embroidery was added by willing audiences at various exhibitions and events.

(Courtesy of <a href="">Kirstie Macleod</a>)
(Courtesy of Kirstie Macleod)
According to the project website, the 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, 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 dress has been worked on by 363 women and 7 men.

‘The Energy of the Fabric’

Macleod told The Epoch Times: “The most memorable parts of the journey have been when I received panels back in the post. The first time I got to see the work, and felt gratitude ... it was a humbling feeling, the humility of the trust that the artisan had given me with their story.

“When you hold the fabric in your hands, you can feel the energy of the fabric, but also how many stitches they’ve created, how much of their time, their energy, their dreaming, their vision ... it’s all in that fabric. To hold that in your hands is incredible.”

Kirstie in 2021, photo by Sophia Scorr Kon (Courtesy of <a href="">Sophia Schorr-kon</a> via <a href="">Kirstie Macleod</a>)
Kirstie in 2021, photo by Sophia Scorr Kon (Courtesy of Sophia Schorr-kon via Kirstie Macleod)

Besides their lovingly crafted handiwork, the painful stories of the women artisans began to weigh heavily on Macleod, who eventually saw a therapist to help process the experience of making the dress.

She explained: “There is a huge amount of trauma and abuse, war, and incredibly painful situations and stories stitched into the dress, alongside joyful, happy, uplifting things. But it has been difficult for me to integrate and process some of the stories ... because I’m working with it so deeply and intimately every day.”

Back in 2009, Macleod spent a week straight constructing the structure of the dress. Since then, she has dedicated two or three full days of work every few years, liaising with artisans across the world in between. However, she often finds herself doing “little bits and bobs” to mend loose buttons or seams, and has grown used to the extended time frame of the dress’s construction with respect for its expanding story.

When Macleod began the project she didn’t know if the project would work for a year or ten years, however even after a decade she knew it wasn’t complete and thus continued it for three more years.

Macleod said: “People often say, ‘How could you carry on for so long? How could you be so dedicated to something?’ For me ... how could I not be? It just made perfect sense to me that this piece would be made.”

Embroidery by Allthreads Collective Australia, 2018, photo by Sophia Schorr Kon (Courtesy of <a href="">Sophia Schorr-kon</a> via <a href="">Kirstie Macleod</a>)
Embroidery by Allthreads Collective Australia, 2018, photo by Sophia Schorr Kon (Courtesy of Sophia Schorr-kon via Kirstie Macleod)

Meeting the Makers

For the dress’ very first presentation in Dubai, Macleod had to work very quickly. So she enlisted the help of her mentor, Gail Faulkner, and seamstress Silvio De Gregorio to prepare the garment and find a way to conceal the plunging neckline to conform with Sharia law. She has since made additional changes to the bodice and skirt to allow for a better exhibition of the panels and, since 2019, embroidery has been added directly to the dress to fill the remaining spaces.

However, the entire project was not without difficulties. Funding the 13-year project, and finding a work-life balance, have been the biggest challenges for Macleod.

For the first year, Macleod was funded by the British Council, however, for the next eight years she had to fund the project by herself as public interest waned and it proved very hard to get recognition and exhibitions during that time.

“I self-funded the project for many years, and that was at a time when I was a single mom on benefits so it was very, very difficult,” she said. “There were some really generous donations from individuals who just really loved the project and wanted to help, that was fantastic, but then I was given an Arts Council award grant in 2020 and that changed everything.”

The funding enabled her to get a website and a film made. It also helped with getting translators since sometimes communicating wasn’t as easy.

Macleod was also working on the dress most of the time, including through mornings and evenings and around her family time.

“Now I’m quite rigorous about just working in my studio, unless I absolutely have to do something quickly,” she said. “But when I’m at home, I’m dedicated to my kids.”

Maker Amanda Wright in Wales, 2010 (Courtesy of <a href="">Kirstie Macleod</a>)
Maker Amanda Wright in Wales, 2010 (Courtesy of Kirstie Macleod)
Today, she is touring with The Red Dress to share its message and meet some of its contributors. Thus far she has met various makers in Mexico, embroiderer Amanda Wright in Wales, and artisans Rudy and Fatima Lilly in Kosovo.

In the next few years, she plans to reconnect with all the artisans and meet them in person to show them the finished dress.

Macleod has only had to field occasional concerns about her project. She explained, “I have had three messages from people over the years who have been upset by the dress, particularly because of my position as a middle-class white woman. There have been criticisms of it being a colonialist piece of work ... in every one of those situations, once the people who had written to me actually understood the work, then everything fully resolved.”

(Courtesy of <a href="">Mark Pickthall</a> via <a href="">Kirstie Macleod</a>)
(Courtesy of Mark Pickthall via Kirstie Macleod)

However mostly the public reaction to the dress has been great. It has provoked feelings of reverence; tears, smiles, hugs, conversation, and most of all, connection. “When I do events, often it will turn into a really big sharing experience for people,” Macleod said.

“It’s about what’s possible when we come together. It’s about love, it’s about support, companionship, authenticity. It’s about equality and unity,” she said. “If the dress can, even just for a moment, share what is possible when we come together, when we can support one another ... there’s some hope.”

“[The dress] has been described as a beacon of peace and various other things,” she said. “I hope that it I hope that it can help people feel comfortable and feel a connection.”

The Red Dress in Speaking Out in collaboration with War Childhood Museum Sarajevo. The exhibition was dedicated to and co-produced by women survivors of conflict-related sexual violence and children born of war. (Courtesy of <a href="">Kirstie Macleod</a>)
The Red Dress in Speaking Out in collaboration with War Childhood Museum Sarajevo. The exhibition was dedicated to and co-produced by women survivors of conflict-related sexual violence and children born of war. (Courtesy of Kirstie Macleod)
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