My climate emergency dress – and why I donated it to M Shed

Posted on by Lauren MacCarthy.

by Melanie Ruth, dress creator

Why a climate emergency dress?

I’ve used my dress as both an expression of my creativity and love of design – as ‘Wearable Art’. More deeply, it reflects my concerns about the climate emergency we face and the loss of wildlife.

In this way, I like to think I’ve taken a mere garment to another level – to become a vehicle for raising awareness around the topic of endangered and extinct species, as we have entered the Age of Anthropocene. So many animals lost… all of them innocent.

Construction

The first seeds were sewn, when I joined the Time Is Now protest in London on the 26 June 2019. I wanted to take something visual, but small and compact. An umbrella sprang to mind. I found some images, laminated them to protect them from rain, glue-gunned them on and added a decorative border. It was a hit.

A panorama of the climate protest crowds outside City Hall on College Green in BristolThis led me to thinking about actually wearing something. I had a neo-Victorian theme in mind and hunted around the charity shops. The best I could come up with was a 1980s ‘Berkertex Bride’ dress, from a charity shop on Gloucester Road. With its puffy sleeves, fluffies and flounces, it wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, but I thought I could transform it somehow.

So, the revamping and redesigning began. I decided to use only black, white and grey to amplify the sombreness of the subject (in the Japanese tradition white is the colour of death).

I found an old grey duvet cover to recycle and cut out three triangular ‘godets’. These were inserted into the centre back and front side panels, to create a visual contrast.

I experimented with placing the animal images directly onto the dress, but they looked a bit lost. Instead I made circles to frame them using the same grey material, with an additional black rim. I put the dodo in the centre front, as it is the first creature whose demise is a direct result of our human impact.

The most time-consuming process was finding similar sized images to use. I spent hours in both Bishopston and Horfield libraries, hunting, scanning, printing, reducing/enlarging and photocopying endangered and extinct wildlife.

Next was to construct a bustle. Making a bustle is a mammoth project in itself, so I started thinking outside the box and came up with using upcycled bubble wrap. It worked! To complete the outfit, I found a black corset in another charity shop and added smaller circles up through the front.

Inspiration

During the making, I went to the Extinction Voices exhibition at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery. I was immediately struck by the parallels of what I was seeing and what I was creating. Somehow I’d chosen the same era to portray the same theme! I made an immediate connection to the reference of the Victorian black mourning veil, as I was using the polar-opposite colour, white, with the same meaning.

Standing in front of each black shrouded animal I felt almost desperate to do something positive for the plight of the wildlife still living. The whole exhibition spurred me on to complete the project.

Melanie Ruth wearing her customised wedding dress leading a crowd of protesters down Park Street in Bristol

With a great many safety pins holding it in place, I completed the dress just in time for the Global Climate Strike on 20 September 2019.

I was standing amongst the crowd at College Green when Lee Hutchinson and Rhian Rowson – curators from Bristol Museums – approached me and asked if I’d consider donating my dress to the museums’ collection.

I was more than delighted because if there’s anything I can do to raise awareness of climate change and biodiversity loss, I will do it. Nature must be protected – it’s our life-support system!

Images:

  • A panorama of the crowds outside City Hall during the Bristol General Strike for Climate protest.
  • Melanie Ruth leading the Bristol General Strike for Climate down Park Street on 20 September 2019. Behind her are some of the BBC Natural History Unit team. © Danny Shaw – Editor of the Bristol Tab.
  • The crowd on College Green outside City Hall at the Bristol General Strike for Climate.

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