A flyer for Katie’s journey had appeared in the green room of the theatre in which we both occasionally work. She designs and makes clothing for performance, often having to artificially weather and age costumes by ‘distressing’ the fabric using cheese graters and spray paint. She told me of her plan to make a dress to do a long walk in. Katie would accumulate a year’s worth of ‘real miles and real dirt’ to break it down in a natural way by walking one thousand miles around the UK. I loved the idea of observing the changes wrought by wind, water and the land to such a beautiful dress as the seasons turned. I asked Katie if I could join her on one of her walks and bring my camera. She was open and delighted at the idea of the journey being documented on film.
Our first walk together was in Haworth, West Yorkshire. Out on the snowy moors, wearing a Victorian-style dress with its own unusual and colourful flair, it was hard not to imagine Katie as a displaced character from the world of the Brontës. As she heaved the snow-caked dress through the slush and mulch of autumn leaves, Katie’s steps were followed not by her own footprints but the tracks and trails of fabric.
At a time in which the arms of the fast-fashion industry extend to outdoor clothing and accessories, it was a joy to see Katie walking in clothing that she’d made herself. We are often sold the idea that walking kit is essential to improving our experience of being in the natural world on the basis that being comfortable and shielded from the elements is the priority. Why choose to wear something which is unnecessarily heavy and restrictive? Fell-baggers count their grams. Lightweight, technical and synthetic materials are often considered preferable because of their ‘high-performance’ capabilities. We can come to then think that unless we buy a load of branded gear, which is often expensive, or poorly made and disposable, our time spent walking is somehow lacking. This commodification of the ‘walking experience’ supplies us with products which rely upon cheap human labour and industrial production processes, to be shipped halfway around the world. The true cost of such clothing may be more than just the hefty price tags they often carry.
Katie’s hand-made approach felt like a refreshing contrast to this form of consumption. How might the seemingly undesirable characteristics of the clothing affect her as a wearer and walker? While I’m sure that wearing a corset up a mountain doesn’t make for the most enjoyable of hikes, the limits of the dress’s warmth, durability and water resistance were part of what contributed to Katie’s experiences over hundreds of miles.
This commodification of the ‘walking experience’ supplies us with products which rely upon cheap human labour and industrial production processes, to be shipped halfway around the world
From 2015-17, Katie’s walks took place against the harrowing backdrop of the refugee crisis. Many were crossing thousands of miles on foot. Not for pleasure, or art, but for safety. Carrying this awareness, as well as acknowledging how fortunate she was to freely travel how and where she wanted, was an added layer to the journey of Katie and her dress. The notion of wearing a single set of clothing over the course of many miles was an element of the refugee experience that she drew parallels with. As well as doing the walk to raise money for the United Nations Refugee Agency, Katie made a conscious decision to not wash or repair the dress as it travelled with her.
Witnessing the wear and tear on the dress was incremental for me. Each time I joined Katie to film, a few scales would have been shed, a seam would be opening up, another ruffle on the hem shredded. Some fallen pieces were recovered on return walks or looped routes while other shreds of its fabric have been lost in landscapes across the country. Katie noted on one walk that the dress was ‘preening itself’. As the hem shortened, stiles became easier to hop over. The more Katie walked in it, the more the dress adapted to being in different environments.
Upon encountering the dress, people would view it differently depending on the surroundings. On a popular walking trail on the Isle of Skye, a mother guided her daughter’s gaze to a passing fairy. On the shifting sands of Morecambe Bay, some saw a mermaid against the receding tide.
While the dress carried sand, river water and earth from walk to walk, it was also marked by paths shared with people. As well as opening up welcome conversations with strangers, the companionship of friends and family created impressions on its journey. I like to think that Katie carried a part of each place and person into each successive walk with the dress, through matter and memory.
The journey of the Thousand Mile Dress was not dictated by a single route or direction towards a destination but characterised by a series of encounters with landscapes and the people Katie met and walked with. From the north-east island of Lindisfarne across to the Lake District fells; the Somerset streets of Bath to the wooded valleys of Betws-y-coed in Wales, the dress still holds the stains of mud and moss on the sun-faded lilac waves of its bedraggled hem. As it has accumulated physical matter, so too did the stories of people and places come to be woven into its fraying fabric. My hope is that the film reflects some elements of those stories.
For more on the dress and Katie’s other work: duxburydesigns.co.uk
For more on the project: facebook.com/thousandmiledress
Dark Mountain: Issue 17
The Spring 2020 issue brings together essays. stories, poetry and artwork creating a new culture of restoration.
What an absolutely stunning gem of a thing, well done everyone