The quartet of nimble-fingered designers unstitched the dress. One loop after another they loosened the threads, separating from the rest of the piece a rectangular blue cotton fabric. It had red borders on the top and bottom. Emblazoned in the center is a crest: a ring of leaves encircling two men, one light and one dark-skinned. They each propped a tool on their shoulders: an axe and a paddle. Jostled under their feet are the words SUB UMBRA FLOREO. It’s Latin for, “Under the shade I flourish.” It’s the flag of Belize. And they’ve just removed it from the dress made from an ensemble of 72 flags.
The four designers created the dress as a statement against discrimination of the LGBTQI community. The bodice (the top of the dress) is the Amsterdam city flag. The bottom of the dress comprises flags from 72 countries that outlaw homosexuality or homosexual acts. At its full width, the dress measures 16 meters (52 feet) in diameter.
On 10 August, 2016, the Supreme Court of Belize, in a radical departure from a dated draconian law, decriminalized homosexuality. The dress had no place for Belize anymore. So, they replaced it with a rainbow flag.
“It’s such good news that we have to replace the Belize flag,” said one of the designers, 36-year-old Mattijs van Bergen.
According to the quartet, the dress represents Amsterdam’s centuries-old role as the shelter city for LGBT refugees persecuted in their own countries. The, now, 71 flags seek sanctuary under the shade of the Amsterdam city flag. SUB UMBRA FLOREO.
The dress, which made its first public appearance on 5 August, 2016, at Amsterdam’s inaugural LGBT Freedom Ceremony, was modeled by Valentijn de Hingh. The 26-year-old Dutch transgender model was the befitting personification of the dress. Her success as a transgender model bookended the designers’ message.
The four tight-knit designers — Mattijs van Bergen, Arnout van Krimpen, Jochem Kaan, and Oeri van Woezik — are all artists by trade. Their familiarity with each other was as equally pivotal as their crafty hands. The whole project, according to Mattijs, took just under a week to complete.
“The Amsterdam Rainbow Dress came about quite fluidly, despite it being a very intensive project,” said 37-year-old digital creative director, Jochem, “The cooperation between us four is a dream come true, as we are all close friends and dedicated to the message we are sending out.”
In countries like Libya, Somalia, and Iran, homosexuality is punishable by death — with some countries exacting death by stoning. For others, like Malaysia, Egypt, and Barbados, it’s imprisonment.
On top of that, the dress also bestows a voice to the belittled and the bullied. In some countries, even ones void of discriminating laws, deviant individuals are psychologically castrated by societal norms. Their voices are drowned out by boisterous conservative chatter inherited from generations before them.
The Netherlands — where the four designers were born and raised — is considered to be one of the most progressive in the world when it comes to LGBT rights. In 1987, they erected the world’s first monument to commemorate homosexuals who were persecuted and killed during World War II.
“We also became the first country to legalize gay marriage in 2001. The progressiveness of the Netherlands needs no embellishments,” said 44-year-old sculptural and spatial artist Oeri.
That notwithstanding, discrimination, like pests, is resilient. It slips through cracks.
“Coming out for anyone is difficult. Coming to terms with one’s sexuality is not easy. In secondary school, I was bullied for being gay until I came out. As soon as I came out, I had nothing to hide anymore, and so I had nothing to be bullied about,” said Mattijs, who grew up in Beuningen, a small village in the Netherlands.
“From that time, I became a much stronger person,” he said.
And that’s what the dress represents. At least, it’s one of the things it represents — overcoming discrimination. But the reasons behind this dress are manifold.
“Our project seeks to raise awareness on several levels; on the vast challenges that LGBTQI-refugees have to deal with on a daily basis, on the fact that over a third of the world’s countries still have active anti-LGBT legislation in some form or another,” said 47-year-old art teacher Arnout.
Even though the designers have since replaced the Belize flag on the dress, 71 countries remain etched on the train; bound together by the common thread of discrimination and dyed in persecution.
“We hope that the dress will help to change the law in more countries so that eventually we’ll be able to turn it into a dress made completely out of rainbow flags,” said Mattijs.
Since the introduction of the dress, a huge conversation has erupted on social media. Additionally, it’s garnered attention from international media, from BuzzFeed, to Vogue, to CTV News, to The Guardian. Even countries whose flags are depicted on the dress took notice: Malaysia, and India.
The message is working. It’s growing. Sweeping across nations with the impetus of a raging wildfire.
And it is their hope that the dress would help rescind the laws in the 71 countries; like a game of a more colorful Reversi, flipping each flag in succession.
One down, 71 to go.