Shirley Steenberg

CANANDA | 2019
SECTION OF DRESS: My Story, my Culture, our Country, Strong and Free

Shirley an Inuit from northern Canada creates a poignant work depicting important elements of her unique identity.
My name is Shirley Steenberg, I’m originally from a small town called Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, Canada.  I’m Inuvialuk, (also known as Inuit) an indigenous group of people that live along the coast of the Beaufort Sea.  I was invited to participate in a 10 year art project created by Kirstie Macleod of the UK, an embroidery of a Red Dress with 130 embroiderers each sewed a panel from 27 different countries around the world and sewn together to create a magnificent brilliant Red Dress.  For my panel I chose maple leaf, Indigenous medicine wheel, polar bear, inukshuk and “Strong and Free” from our Canadian National anthem.       

I have chosen the Medicine Wheel to be the center of my panel of the red dress, sometimes known as the Sacred Hoop, it has been used by generations of various Native American groups for health and healing. It embodies the Four Directions (north, south, east and west), as well as Father Sky, Mother Earth, and Spirit Tree—all of which symbolize dimensions of health and the cycles of life.

The stitching in the wheel symbolizes the sun and sunflower in yellow, one of my favorite flowers.  The three leaves represents my 3 daughters Crystal, Amber and Ruby also known as my ‘Gem girls’, they are my strength, love, and purpose in life.

I have our Canadian maple leaf on the panel, it represents our country of many nationalities, “Strong and Free” is from our Canadian national anthem.

In the medicine wheel I have the polar bear, a sacred animal of our North, they are vulnerable because of our melting ice in the sea, and their population are slowly decreasing.  There is a special story about the polar bear spirit, my great-great-grandfather William Mangilaluk who was the chief and founder of Tuktoyaktuk believed he had the spirit of the polar bear and when he passed away his name-sake is passed down to our relatives who choose to name their son after Mangilaluk and we believe in carrying on their spirit names generations to generations.  It is also the logo I created for my school in Tuktoyaktuk, NT, Canada.      

At the very bottom of the panel I have the Inukshuk, they were used by us Inuvialuit as directional markers on the land to tell others traveling that we have been there. It is made of tundra rocks in the shape of a person and it signifies safety, direction of our next journey, hope and friendship. ... Inuksuit (plural) have been transformed into a symbol of hope and friendship that transcends borders to reach people all over the world.

I’m one of many nationalities and cultures of the world, thru one red dress we come together to share cherished beliefs and cultures, tell our stories, we come in unity, love, peace, respect, expression, healing, and empowerment.  I am Inuvialuk, strong and resilient.


A huge thank you to all who have given their time, energy, enthusiasm, advice, experience and financial support to the Red Dress project over the years.

In addition to the institutions below, funding has been gratefully received from a number of private donations and 441 individuals around the world via 2 Crowdfunding campaigns in 2020 and 2022.

The Red Dress is one of the most power pieces of clothing I have ever seen
Angelica Colleluci, Head of Design & Productions at Ozwald Boateng
The Red Dress in its final incarnation, a magnificent, regal robe, symbolises the empowerment of women through the creation of something beautiful, something which began with bowed heads and tired fingers but also with faith and joy, an openness and willingness to be a part of something which they could not see at that time but in which they could believe had meaning and worth connecting with other women around the world
Lady Alison Myners, Chair of the Royal Academy Trust 2020
The Red Dress is in some respects similar to Mail Art, the populist artistic movement centred on sending small scale works through the postal service. It initially developed out of the Fluxus movement in the 1950s and 60s – but on a larger scale – the journey of the work is part of its identity, process, and in fact function. A signifier of the temporal and physical nature of the process inherent in the creation of the piece. The surface of the dress layered with embroidery slowly transforming into a specific topographical map – completely particular to the work’s journey – and reflective of the burgeoning sculptural landscape of the object
Paul Black, Artlyst 2015
It’s her (Kirstie’s) red silk Dupion bodice and voluminous skirt created for the Red Dress that fully demonstrates her commitment to embroidery and the immense respect for the international community of makers
Denna Jones. Embroidery Magazine 2010
I can't remember when they embroidered that piece of silk (2018?) but I feel that something has changed since. The fact that they could embroider what they wanted and that it is appreciated has given them some strength, some confidence that I didn’t feel so strongly before. Last year, I sent them a drawing and asked them to “interpretate" it the way they wanted; again it came back with a lot of emotions, another beautiful story. Thank you for giving them this opportunity
Nicole Esselan, Founder of Kisany Africa (supporting artisans in DR CONGO and RWANDA)
This is both an extraordinary work of collective art and profound and eloquent social commentary. It is also an example of how potent the Attire language is capable of becoming
Attires Mind (Fashion Blogger) 2020
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