Color has long been used to signify social and political status and to convey other critical messages without saying a word. During the Byzantine era, only royals could wear the color purple, which represented rarity, piety, magic, and mystery. In the Middle Ages, red symbolized the blood of Christ and was worn by kings to signify their God-given right to rule. According to Hannah Craggs, senior color editor at trend-forecasting consultancy WGSN, “Throughout history, color has been used as a tool of self-expression and peaceful protest.”
In present day terms, we only need to look at the first Women’s March in January 2017, whereby millions of women and their allies banded together globally wearing pink pussyhats as a visible symbol of protest to the Trump presidency. At the 75th Golden Globe Awards in 2018, the color black was strategically worn by female actors to support the #TimesUp movement. In 2019, women politicians wore white to the State of the Union as a way to honor suffragists, while also making a pointed statement about the landmark number of women elected to the US Congress. And today, the color purple, used by Alice Walker and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in their novels, The Color Purple and Purple Hibiscus, is used to signify and signal a new awakening and rebirth of their characters.
In last week’s UoF blog entitled Threads of Unity, we discussed Kirstie Macleod’s Red Dress Project, a red dress that took 14 years to complete and was stitched together by the hands of 380 embroidery artisans, across 51 countries.
Today, we will focus on the REDress Project, National Ribbon Skirt Day and the Red Ribbon Skirt Project, projects that draw attention to the missing and murdered Indigenous women (MMIW) epidemic in the United States and Canada.
The REDress Project
Video of The REDress Project at the National Museum of the American Indian. (Video Credit: YouTube, Smithsonian NMAI)
Picture a landscape adorned with red dresses hanging from trees, billowing in the wind like ghostly echoes of untold stories. The REDress Project, conceived by artist Jaime Black, is a public art installation that began in 2010, and that breathes life into a poignant symbol aimed at raising awareness about the staggering number of missing and murdered Indigenous women(MMIW) across North America.
Each red dress, carefully selected or donated, represents a life lost or a woman still missing. The installation art project serves as a visual reminder, challenging communities to confront the harsh realities faced by Indigenous women. The choice of the color red is deliberate – the artist chose the color after conversations with an indigenous friend, who told her that red is the only color the spirits can see. “So (red) is really a calling back of the spirits of these women and allowing them a chance to be among us and have their voices heard through their family members and community”, Jaime Black told CTV news. The artist has also suggested “red symbolizes both vitality and violence” according to The Washington Post.
As these empty dresses sway in the wind, they carry with them the weight of countless narratives, invoking a call to action for justice and systemic change. The REDress Project transcends its artistic origins, becoming a powerful voice for Indigenous communities advocating for the safety and well-being of their women.
The project has inspired other artists to use red to draw attention to the issue of MMIW, and prompted the creation of Red Dress Day, which occurs on May 5th. The first Red Dress Day was observed in 2010 and is a day to honor and bring awareness to the thousands of Indigenous women and girls, who have gone missing or who have been murdered.
National Ribbon Skirt Day
Amidst the sobering echoes of the REDress Project, a day of celebration and cultural pride emerged – National Ribbon Skirt Day. This event is observed on January 4th and was first celebrated in 2023. The day was inspired by Isabella Kulak, an Indigenous girl in Saskatchewan who was humiliated for wearing a traditional ribbon skirt to a formal dress day at her elementary school in 2020.
The ribbon skirt, a traditional garment worn by Indigenous women, serves as a testament to the strength and spirit of Indigenous cultures. It embodies a connection to heritage, land, and community. Red Ribbon Skirt Day invites individuals to don this symbolic garment, fostering a sense of unity and pride within Indigenous communities.
The Red Ribbon Skirt Project
Complementing National Ribbon Skirt Day is the Red Ribbon Skirt Project, a grassroots movement that empowers Indigenous women through art and storytelling. This initiative encourages women to create and share their own red ribbon skirts, each adorned with personal symbols and stories that reflect their unique journeys.
The Red Ribbon Skirt Project transforms the red ribbon skirt into a canvas of empowerment, giving a voice to those who have been silenced for too long. Through the creation of these symbolic garments, women reclaim their narratives and celebrate the strength inherent in their identity.
According to the Museum on Vancouver, “ribbon skirts and dresses have been worn by Indigenous women in Canada since the early 1800s. Large amounts of ribbon were imported by the Hudson’s Bay Company in the 19th Century for the Indigenous wives of fur traders and their children. The clothing made with ribbon has become an important part of Indigenous culture. Ribbon dresses continue to represent the wearer’s identity and are viewed as symbols of resilience.”
Jamie Smallboy/Nohtikwew pisim is Plains Cree but lives in Vancouver. In 2019, she began the Red Sisters Gathering, a group that sews red ribbon skirts for the families of Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls—and the skirts were worn at the Women’s Memorial March in Vancouver on Feb. 14, 2022. In 2021, Smallboy also founded the non-profit society Sweetgrass Sisters Healing, which now administers the Red Ribbon Skirt Project. Below is a video to learn more about the movement.
Video of the Red Ribbon Skirt Project. (Video Courtesy of YouTube, Museum of Vancouver)
In a world where the echoes of the REDress Project linger, and the National Ribbon Skirt Day and Red Ribbon Skirt Project flourish, the power of red becomes a unifying force. It is a hue that transcends sorrow while embodying the resilience, pride, and strength of Indigenous communities. Through art, color, activism, and cultural celebration, these projects invite us to listen, learn, and stand in solidarity with those who have long been marginalized.
To learn more about color, color theory and color relationships, view these lessons: on the UoF website: