On Monday May 24, over 150 white dresses were displayed outside Parliament House to Remember the Women killed by violence over the past 5 years in Australia.
The Dresses of Sorrow: the silent stories of violence against women were brought to Canberra from Newcastle, NSW, by a contingent of front-line workers from the domestic and family violence sector, researchers, and women’s groups and their allies.
These dresses were lovingly made and decorated to commemorate the life of a woman murdered in Australia. Although these women were not known personally to the makers, the dresses were designed as a tribute to ensure that each woman was remembered and honoured as an individual, rather than as a statistic.
By this date in 2021, 13 women had already been killed through violence. Heartsick and tired of bearing the grief of these deaths year after year, the Newcastle contingent asked the Federal government to listen to their stories, and take enduring, sustainable action to end violence against women.
Dresses that were displayed in Canberra this year began to be produced 5 years ago by Newcastle feminist group AWE. In 2016, AWE invited individuals and organisations in the local community to create a dress that would commemorate a woman killed by violence that year. One dress was made for each woman killed, which in 2016 reached the horrific number of 81 deaths.
The project was instigated by local feminist activist group AWE and was inspired by The REDress Project by artist Jaime Black, which focused on the issue of missing or murdered Aboriginal women across Canada.
The dresses were displayed throughout Newcastle and Maitland during the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence, an annual international campaign running from 25 November (the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women) to 10 December (International Human Rights Day). The idea was that presenting all of the dresses in public spaces would draw much-needed attention to the gravity of the number of women being killed.
In 2016 the dresses were displayed at nine different events and venues including an exhibition at The Lock Up gallery, the Women of Words poetry event, a White Ribbon Breakfast, and Walk A Mile Koori Style, an Indigenous-led annual event where men and boys pledge to combat domestic and family violence to the women in their local communities.
In 2017, Remember the Women – The White Dress Project was produced by members of AWE in conjunction with Community Service students at the local Hunter TAFE. The dresses were presented with the statement: “These women mattered. These women were loved. These women will not be forgotten.” A poster accompanying them read:
“The process of making the dresses has been a different experience for each person involved: Many worked together with care, love and compassion for the woman they were making the dress for. The dresses were handmade, hand painted, hand stitched or hand embroidered. Regardless of how they were made, they all portray the same message and represent and honour a woman whose life was cut short due to violence. For some women the dresses they created reflect their anger at the violence. Some women found the process incredibly difficult, moving, intense, and overwhelmingly sad. The dresses are as diverse as the women who made them and the women we are remembering.”
Dressmaker Jess Salvatore was quoted saying: “I knew more people needed to see it, and more importantly, feel the impact of the dresses. Maybe then, more people will stand up and speak out when they hear/see any act of violence against women.” Dressmaker Rachel Bond was also quoted saying: “I like to believe that the social activism I am involved with is part of a movement to create change, to question societal norms that allow the violence to continue and to push back against the ongoing crisis of violence against women.”
In 2018 the project was led by Warlga Ngurra Women’s and Children’s Refuge, and the dresses were again displayed at Walk A Mile Koori Style. By this stage, people who had been involved in the making the dresses over several years recognised that they were accumulating an ever-growing collection of dresses, for which they had no clear future plans. The decision was made to stop making new dresses and organisers began a conversation about how to store them.
In 2019, some of the dresses that had been made in previous years were displayed at Walk a Mile Koori Style and a public vigil where the dresses were hung in the trees of Civic Park. At the vigil, the name of each woman killed by violence that year was read aloud, followed by a minute’s silence. In 2019 the Gender Research Network at the University of Newcastle also collaborated with the Newcastle Regional Libraries to display one of the dresses in each of the 9 local library branches.
The dresses were not displayed in 2020 because of COVID.
In 2021, at the suggestion of staff at Warlga Ngurra, it was decided to take the by then over 150 remaining dresses to Canberra. Newcastle organisers felt that the local protests were not being heard and a decision was made to present the dresses to the Federal Government and make Parliament responsible for their future. Organisers wanted the politicians to bear the weight of the dresses, and feel responsible for the future of all the women and children in Australia living with domestic abuse and the possibility of being killed in domestic violence.
In May, Domestic Violence Prevention Month, a candlelight vigil was held in Foreshore Park to display the dresses that had been made over the course of the previous 5 years, and to hold a smoking ceremony prior to their journey to Canberra.
In presenting the Dresses of Sorrow to the Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, the Newcastle contingent asked the government to:
- Dramatically increase funding to domestic violence and homelessness refuges, so that no woman is turned away when requesting assistance.
- Immediately address the national housing catastrophe. Women and children cannot be safe when they have nowhere to live in either the private or public housing sector.
- Address gendered poverty as a barrier for women fleeing violence by raising Jobseeker, which is disproportionately required by women, both with school-age children and older women.
The Dresses of Sorrow were exhibited as part of the 2021 Women’s Safety Summit.
Thank you to the team at Persona Communications for volunteering their time and skills to produce the moving coverage of the Canberra protest.
- “Dresses of sorrow deliver domestic violence message to Canberra” by Anthony Scully, ABC Newcastle
- “Dresses of Sorrow raise awareness for domestic violence” by Alex Crowe, Canberra Times
- “Newcastle domestic violence workers take Dresses for Sorrow to Parliament House Canberra” by Sage Swinton, The Newcastle Herald