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Contemporary Takes on the Dress

Born out of the desire to add a sculptural element to an existing solo show, this exhibition came together organically at the onset of a worldwide pandemic and lockdown. Touching base with colleagues in the early days of a new reality, gave clarity to a collective inclination to create dresses for the purpose of telling personal stories.

Nine artists, working respectively on each piece and communally toward the greater exhibition, created an immersive study into individuality, semiotics, joy, sorrow, and humanity. Each dress is a visual narrative drawing from observation and experience. The hope, as you reflect on this retrospective, is that you find a piece of yourself in one or more of these dresses.

2 - JULY 27 2023

Leanna Leithauser Lesley
Black and Tan Fantasy


For four years, Duke Ellington and his orchestra played on the veranda of an Old South set in the famed wealthy “whites only” Cotton Club. The plantation theme played out in actuality every evening with the club’s strict segregation policy as Ellington tirelessly wrote scores to be performed nightly by his orchestra and the club's exclusive ‘Tall, Tan and Terrific” dancers. Racial abuse and exploitation were forms of direct discrimination for every performer at the Cotton Club.

Simultaneously, Ellington quietly devoted his services to the NAACP and its racial equality activities, while using his national exposure via the Cotton Club radio show to elevate the perception of the culture behind jazz music. His battle for social justice was personal. That same year, he wrote his famous Black and Tan Fantasy score which completely challenged what was then called jungle music with a sophisticated fullness of heart and heaviness of mind, giving the piece its beauty. By using African American blues-based expressions, he hints at the unsettled state of the human soul.

Ellington’s music, which appealed to Blacks and Whites alike, provided a culture in which the collective and the individual were inextricable.

“Jazz is the only unhampered, unhindered expression of complete freedom yet produced in this country.”    -  Duke Ellington

This piece is a freehand needle pointed, free motion stitched, and hand sewn commentary.  The beauty of the Art Deco movement and the 1920s Harlem jazz music scene is set against a backdrop of race riots, prohibition, mobsters, and exploitation. The symbolic use of safety pins is my desire to protect and secure these jazz paragons from the harm inflicted by the very people who cashed in on them.

Sarah Jane Shaw
Certain Decay


"Work in this project began in the spring of 2020. Hampered by the state of the world, and only able to create using what was at hand, I found the overgrown, hidden trail behind my home an endless supply of materials which fed my imagination. Using a well loved dress form from the 1930's era as the foundation, I began creating a garment from the items I found on my concrete trail.

Gradually adding other treasures including porcelain doll parts scavenged from the estate of a doll maker and twisted branches gathered after heavy storms, lead me to the idea of combining the decidedly human-made dolls with an overgrowth of the natural world. Additionally, the viewer is presented a sense of dark whimsy reminiscent of the haunted house in a child's story.

Much like the ecosystem of a tide pool or the micro worlds of forest moss, this piece is home to various creatures and their secrets. The viewer is invited to gaze with childlike curiosity and wonder as the dress aims to capture and show a slow, quiet magic - the same magic that allows a tree to recognize her daughters through the mycelial web in fungi's placement at both the beginning and end of a life cycle.

This dress speaks to an eerie comfort found in the certainty of decay and the inherent regrowth which follows. Going forward, this piece will be included in a greater "Mother Nature" series highlighting the divine feminine."

Alvina Zendejas Montes Hill
Gown Alvina


Hola, mi nombre es Ma. Alvina Zendejas Montes Hill, me hace ilusión participar en el diseño de vestidos para este evento. Al diseñar este vestido, me inspiré en México, que es mi país natal. La tradición textil tradicional es muy extensa, colorida y utiliza diversos materiales para formar una prenda. El vestido que he creado, tiene bordados a mano, estampados de pintura, y es un vestido largo. He utilizado los colores azul, negro, dorado y ocre, en telas de algodón, en la forma. Mi idea pero siempre la realidad, juego con las combinaciones y quizás al final acaben en otra afinidad, ya que la creatividad siempre sale de mi mente con soltura. 

Hello, My name is Ma. Alvina Zendejas Hill, I am excited to participate in the design of dresses for this event. When designing this dress, I was inspired by Mexico, which is my favorite country. The traditional textile tradition is very extensive, colorful and uses various materials to form a garment. The dress that I have created, has hand embroidery, paint prints, and is a long dress. I have used the color blue, black, gold and ochre, in cotton fabrics, in the form. My idea but always reality, I play with the combinations and maybe in the end they end up in another affinity, since creativity always comes out of my mind with ease.

Michelle Reynolds
Interconnected: Remnants of Cloth and Nature


My dress symbolizes both loss and a sense of hope in an age of environmental disregard. I have a desire to retreat into a garden and go on lone excursions, finding nature vignettes wherever I go. Communing with nature reveals the complexities of relationships - between creatures and habitats, plants and animals, man and nature - I'm always seeking to understand and find my place in nature's web.

Reality meets mythological and biblical. Snakes are woven into the themes as symbols of health, regeneration and renewal. Slithering through the scene, they become beacons of hope and wishful thinking as I ponder the perils of the earth. I long to mend the wounds, nurture connections to the natural world, and foster conservation ethics.

The assemblage of remnants and threads helps tell a cautionary tale. Machine sewn and hand stitched, stored wall and staffs are pieced and patched, and sutured with stitches of heavy string to symbolize interconnections in nature. Even though connections in nature have been forged over long periods of time, the processes are ongoing. Life is fragile. Natural systems and the ties that bind can unravel in moments.

Humans have drastically changed the Garden of Eden. Climate change, pollution, and degraded ecosystems are a few of the perils caused by their sins. The warnings and wisdom from scientists go ignored as the symbols of health and spirit look on. I hope for a new age of enlightenment. I am ready for mankind to take responsibility, slow the trajectory of destruction, and suture and stitch the wounds of the Earth.

Erin London


Sometimes profound moments come from the mundane, like finding wisdom in a line spoken on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I look to bring the power of story to discarded items, weaving nostalgia and personal symbolism into pieces. I address womanhood, domestication, tradition, and consumerism using a patchwork quilt approach - various mediums and moments from life brought together to make something new. I find patterns in process and meaning while trying to resolve my experience as well as relating to the common experience. My practice often involves collaboration, which speaks to the female experience of being smaller-than/ less-than and requiring the approval of others to be heard.

Starting with a bed skirt, a shower curtain, and some towels, I made a dress that challenges the lack of sustainability of the wedding dress. Instead of being worn only once, as is often the case with cheap, fast-fashion items, this dress would travel the world with a message to the fashion industry: a message of body exclusivity, addressing the lack of diverse women in fashion advertising. The dress’s construction was intentionally designed to adjust to a range of sizes and body shapes and has traveled to Alabama, California, Illinois, Maine, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee, as well as Canada, England, France, Iceland, and Scotland. What began as a project on fashion sustainability morphed into a lesson on complex questions, hard answers, and finding my voice.


Chiharu Takahashi Roach
ローチ 髙橋 千春

神隠し: Kamikakushi

神隠しとは、人間がある日忽然と消え去る現象で、日本では古くから神の仕業又は怪の仕業で現世から結 界を越えて神域に消えたと考えられています。 私には幾つか歳上の兄弟のいとこがいました。二人とも大変明るく元気な男の子で、子供の頃はよく外で 暗くなるまで一緒に遊んでもらいました。しかし兄の基は高校から規律の厳しい全寮制の学校に入学し、そこで 対人恐怖症を患い、全くの別人に変わり果て引き篭もりになってしまいました。弟の晃は健康だったのにもかか わらず、仕事の過労からくる心臓発作で突然死し、一人暮らしのアパートで数日後発見されました。二人とも神 隠しにあったかの様に現代日本が抱える社会問題(社会的参加を回避する”引き篭もり”、ブラック企業による過 酷な労働からの”過労死”)に押し潰されて私の人生から突然いなくなってしまいました。 このドレスは長年にわたり厳格かつ完全主義を求める日本文化の歪みに心が砕け、自分を見失い、抜け殻 にされた数えきれない人達の魂と私のいとこへの想いを表現しました。日本の象徴である紅白を基調とし、もう 自らの言葉で語るこのできない彼らの精神を人形として形にしました。英語では”神隠し”を”spirited away” と翻 訳されます。私は今も彼らとの楽しかった時間を胸に、彼らの消えた魂を想い、切なく物悲しい気持ちになるの です。

“Kamikakushi” means to mysteriously disappear without a trace. According to traditional Japanese folklore, people have believed that gods or the “Kai” (like Mononoke, who is a supernatural being) takes humans to another world from this world. I had cousins who were brothers that were a couple of years older than me. They were very cheerful and bright boys. As children, we always played outside together, well after dark. After the older brother, Hajime, entered a boarding school that was very famous for being intense and strict, he developed anthropophobia, a fear of people. He is no longer the same person that I knew as a child and he has not been able to leave his room for over 40 years. The younger brother, Akira, who was a very healthy person, had a stroke and was found dead at his apartment several days later. It was death from overwork. Rigid social norms and high cultural expectations in Japanese society can often create feelings of inadequacy. These feelings can trigger socially avoidant behaviors sometimes known as “hikikomori”, a form of social withdrawal. Both of my cousins disappeared suddenly from my life as “Kamikakushi” because of modern Japanese social problems. This dress represents my cousins and countless other Japanese citizens who have disappeared or "spirited away" throughout decades of cultural rigidity and a callous expectation of perfectionism. The red and white colors refer to the flag of Japan and the dolls honor those souls who can no longer speak for themselves. "Kamkakushi" is translated as "spirited away" in English. I have beautiful, sweet memories of my cousins and I miss their souls with a painful melancholy.

Translated by Tracie Noles-Ross


Amanda Banks
Alvitr (Strange Creature)

Alvitr (Strange Creature) is a layered A-line gown that tells the story of a contemporary valkyrie through modular garments and found objects. The bodice is comprised of a flurry of crocheted cotton snowflakes that swirl around the torso and down the arms, wrapped in a translucent outer layer of vintage metallic fabric. A length of embellished spandex wraps delicately around the hips, revealing additional layers of faux fur, recycled lace, and rose-embossed velvet draped dramatically to the floor. A belt of hand-painted leather sits at the waist, fastened with an assembled medal rosette and holding trophies collected over a lifetime.

The accompanying headdress is made of crocheted cotton, steel, and found objects. This work was inspired by rediscovering childhood ice-skating memorabilia during a personally difficult season. Finding my old ice-skating awards opened long-dormant wounds left by a traumatic past. Creating Alvitr presented an opportunity to shift the narrative around those past events into one of empowerment. This gown embodies the spirit of people who teach others how to embrace all of their intersecting layers, create beauty from chaos, and bravely challenge oppression.

I used a variety of interesting materials to create Alvitr. My process emerged through intense research, experimentation, and playful exploration of crochet techniques I have known since childhood. Many of the early decisions for this work were made to explore and challenge the physical limitations I experienced during my recovery from trauma. Each component marks a personal milestone in my recovery and a new horizon to explore in future work.


Kimberly Hart
sky blue gown


potassium ferricyanide

ferric ammonium citrate







where do I fit in this blueprint of time and genes?

look at me! see me!

my grandmother's melancholy and anxiety

my grandfather's anger and rage

my father's temper and his toes

my mother’s bent her pinky fingers and harsh words

my brother's wobbly reality of here not here

my aunt's squinty left eye with squeaky Tourette’s

look closer

the generations rolled into me

DNA or epigenetic

breathe: one, two, three four; one, two, three four; one, two, three four

the mean voice of shame and difference.

little one, sit with me

listen the wind in trees and feel it in your hair

come into the cave and sit with me

have a cup of tea and a nap

let go: breathe


olly olly oxen free

compassion and kindness disrupt the pattern

mother, mother, father, father

where does it end!


olly olly oxen free


Katie D'Arienzo
My Kimono

Moving to Huntsville, Alabama from Honolulu, Hawaii as a small child proved to be a pivotal event in my life. The struggle with feeling like an outsider due to my Japanese heritage has formed my journey to adulthood. The conversations and comments made regarding my Japanese features, family traditions and stereotypes left me battling self-consciousness and as a young girl, I felt set apart. Embracing heritage in a place that feels so far removed from my roots has given me the courage to accept myself.

The kimono is a symbol of longevity and good fortune.  Using cyanotype printing which creates an ultraviolet and blue light spectrum, I have infused each panel with a part of myself. In Japanese culture, the color blue symbolizes dignity and stability, something I have spent a lifetime searching for. This blue garment is a collage of places and things, from my Japanese ancestry to early adulthood in Alabama. Each panel is a part of who I am.


Tracie Noles-Ross
Widow’s Weeds

I began the process of creating a dress for this show by exploring the history of mourning attire because I am newly widowed. I glommed onto and immediately started riffing on the term “widow’s weeds”, a term used, primarily in the Victorian age to describe mourning clothes of a widow, because of that weird word weeds. In the context of this term, weeds comes from the Old English word "Waed" meaning "garment" but I cannot help but think of the definition of the word that refers to a plant, specifically an unwanted plant. It is an unfortunate but interesting coincidence since widowed and older women in general are often perceived and treated as unwanted, under-appreciated and invisible members of society.

In keeping with the unwanted plant metaphor, I have employed nature motifs and plant dyed and repurposed (tossed and worn out) fabrics to create a piece that represents a period of change, the time of menopausal shift and the metamorphosis from married family woman to the solitary elder wise women. By exploring the female elder archetypes, I have created a metaphorical garment representing the wise old healer, the seer, the earthy witch in the woods of fairy tales, the holder of stories and the knowledge of the mysteries of woman. I have created a dress that is evocative of the forest floor, a place where death, regeneration and new life coexist in a beautiful subtle mutualism and layered that with anatomical representations of parts of a woman’s body.


Cynthia Wagner
The Communists are Coming for Us

The creation of this dress provided me with an opportunity to poke around in my soul and personal history looking for answers, clarity, and some healing of the childhood trauma I endured at the hands of my mother. Mom had childhood trauma of her own and serious mental health issues. She struggled to keep above the fear, depression, and the overwhelm of her eight children, my father’s working-class paycheck, her mid-century idealism, and the weight of her religious and political extreme conservativism. I never knew when the ground under my feet would give way and Mom and her world would come crashing down around me, literally. This led me to be hyper vigilant, watching for danger to appear at any time and so I managed by learning to “walk on eggshells”.

Another thing that got me through such a challenging childhood was some of the supporting people in my life including my paternal grandparents, a few teachers, and some of my close friends and their parents. I’ve found myself collecting one of the primary materials of the dress – eggshells – from friends and family because it’s taken such a surprising number of eggshells to make the piece. It’s hard to imagine making it through all the challenges of life without the help of others. Thanks to those who’ve helped along the way to smooth off the edges of my fears and make the world a more comfortable, supportive, and creative place to live.


Merrilee Challiss
“Chrysalis”  S(mother)  S(moth)er

“Chrysalis” began in 1999, first as a quilt project for an installation. “S(mother),” the original name for the project, was created over six months of hand-sewing separated bra cups that had been stuffed and rejoined, creating an undulating sea of mammary glands. Underneath the quilt was sewn a layer of red silk, edged with layers of tulle. “S(mother)” was an investigation, inquiry, and critique of the maternal, and our ideas of femininity, mending, and motherhood. Under the umbrella of “domestic conceptualism,” a term which I coined at the time to describe the intersection of art and craft, “women’s work,” fabric functions as skin and stitches suggest surgery and sutures (alluding to Amazonian warrior goddesses, breast surgeries, etc.). As my work centers around themes of transformation, identity, and consciousness, I often cannibalize my own work as I, myself, evolve, transforming and evolving individual pieces by other means of production, sometimes working on and transforming materials for years. ”S(mother)” transitioned to “Chrysalis,” from a quilt to a sculpture, through the process of attaching it to a dress form cocooned in fibers, in the 2010s. Offering alternative multi-valent readings of the materials and layers as a site of transformation, evolution, and mutation, “Chrysalis” continues to situate itself in liminal territory. Between the sacred and profane, between purity and putrefaction, where the growths and presence of the moths project more a “Ms. Havisham” than a wedding vibe, “Chrysalis” projects an emergent shadow of the dark feminine within.


Tara Stallworth Lee
Trees Love Us


In the winter of 2018, I made a paper dress from a pile of handmade abaca sheets.  I used a childlike mindset, scissors, glue, and thread to fashion a simple A-line form.  That same year, as a featured artist for a fellow artist’s photo project, I posed in front of a discarded bed sheet while wearing my paper dress.  Titled, I Am Not Your Mother, it was also included in the 2018 exhibition, Paper/work, hosted by Alabama Women's Caucus for Art.  In 2021, I layered, along with the dress, rust-soaked paper towels, organic matter, and tiny rusty things, then rolled the concoction around a rusty pipe and eco-dyed the bundle.  It fell apart at the seams and was more beautiful than before.


Philosophies of the Jedi inform the gown, as do converging messages of Princess Mononoke and monkhood.  Themes of spirituality, nature, tradition, and progress are ever-present.  This triple robe set design is borrowed from traditional monastic dress.  It’s made from “pure (unwanted) cloth” and incorporates the aforementioned rejected bed sheet.  The repurposed pieces were soaked in an ever-changing dye bath of rusty materials and other organic matter, exposed to sun, wind, rain, and the occasional hail or snow, returned to the bath, then the elements again, back and forth in an irregular rotation of saturation, bleaching, and decay.  Cyanotype chemistry was later added, and my grandmother’s threads, accumulated buttons, and little objects adorn the set.  It is draped on, over, and around a plaster cast of my torso that’s been strengthened with layers of the original paper dress, unfolded paper cranes, and my children’s elementary schoolwork. 

Tara Stallworth Lee


Not everyone is naturally talented at sewing, and making your first triple robe set can be frustrating, However, this kind of frustration can teach us how to start truly letting go. The qualities needed for a life of meditation and renunciation – resourcefulness, steadfastness, and a willingness to not give up when things get difficult – are all introduced through sewing robes. Then, when the robes are finished, we look after them well because we understand the effort that went into them.

– Ajan Ñaniko

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