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No fabric red dress represents the danger faced by Indigenous women

Designer Rhonda Johnson’s no fabric red dress: in remembrance of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. (Photo: Shari Narine)

“Red is the colour that spirits can see. The dress is a symbol of remembrance.” —Rhonda Johnson of Acahkos Designs

By Shari Narine
Windspeaker Contributor
WABASCA, Alta.

An eye-grabbing red dress will have deeper meaning when it’s on display Aug. 15 to Aug. 17 in Wabasca at the “Renewing Our Spirit Conference.” 

“Red is the colour that spirits can see,” said its creator Rhonda Johnson of Acahkos Designs. “The dress is a symbol of remembrance.”

And among those being remembered is Gloria Gladue, a 44-year-old Wabasca woman who was last seen in the area October 2015.  This past June, RCMP charged Grant Arthur Sneesby, 68, of Gladstone, Man., with second degree murder and offering an indignity to remains.  Gloria’s remains were recovered in rural Manitoba.

Gladue is a distant relative to Johnson, who lives in Calling Lake.

Johnson’s creation is a unique complement to the REDress campaign, which has brought attention to the more than 1,200 murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls in Canada. It is a dress made without fabric. 

Johnson combined Dollar Store tablecloths with cellophane, red plastic tape with ‘Danger’ written in bold black, reflective tape, and parfleche for the dress. Roses are scattered throughout and made of tulle, horse hair, beads, and gems. The impressive angel wings that spread out from the back of the dress are made of tulle, puzzle pieces, and feathers.

“The puzzle pieces have the major headlines that were in the news this past year, like Tina Fontaine and Colten Boushie, the Vancouver district, the Pickton farm.  The smaller puzzle pieces are all of the murdered and missing Indigenous women that you see online,” said Johnson.

It took her a little over a month to make the dress, with concepts and inspiration coming as she worked.

“I wasn’t quite sure what exactly I was going to construct the dress out of,” she said, although she did know she wanted to do something to honour the murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls.

“To me, the red dress is not beautiful; it’s not glamourous. It emphasizes the danger. It signifies believing in our women, and they’re gone,” she said.

In May, Johnson entered her creation in the No Fabric Fashion Competition in the annual Fashion for Freedom event held in Edmonton. Presented by Poiema Productions, the charity event was a fundraiser supporting A21, a global anti-human trafficking organization. Johnson was the only Indigenous woman among 12 designers and admits it was a little intimidating entering “unknown territory.” She took home second prize.

“It was based on people’s choice, which means by vote and I didn’t have any family or friends there to vote for me. So it was all pubic voting and they chose me for second place,” said Johnson. “It was a big accomplishment.”

Whether the dress is physically displayed or on her Facebook page only, Johnson says it starts conversations.

“I come across quite a bit of stories when I have this dress on display. A lot of people come in and tell me their personal stories, which is hard,” she said.

In Wabasca, along with having her dress on display, Johnson will be presenting a fashion show to showcase her styles and designs.

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