1130 Pine Street, Paso Robles, CA 93446
October 25, 2018

SLO County artists use gowns to tell women's stories

San Luis Obispo New Times

SLO County artists use gowns to tell women's stories

By Ryah Cooley

When she saw it, she knew. That little black dress hanging on the rack at the thrift store was absolutely meant to go home with San Luis Obispo artist Julie Frankel.

Well, it wasn't the dress just yet. But with a few turns of the needle and thread, Frankel knew it could be the dress to capture the spirit of Nina Simone, the musician and civil rights activist, as part of the Short Story Collection: Narrative Gowns and Feminine Histories exhibit, on display at Studios on the Park in Paso Robles starting Nov. 1.

The show will feature gowns by Frankel and her longtime friend and collaborator, Atascadero artist Melinda Forbes, in addition to the fabric creations of eight other female artists.

Frankel and Forbes began working together about 20 years ago, making artists' books and hand-sewn gowns. Their pieces are typically displayed on dress forms or as hanging art, though in the past, models have worn them for art fashion shows.

"We have complementary skills," Frankel said. "Melinda is an idea person, and I'm the one at my computer organizing things and planning the date, so it goes well together."

Part of the Short Story Collection will include a grove of green-hued dresses that are more thematic in nature as well as a number of dresses inspired by specific notable women, like Frankel's Simone dress. The piece, I Put a Spell on You, is a little black cotton number adorned with red stitching that reads, "I'm just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh Lord, please don't let me be misunderstood." A red bird flies between the words, and at the bottom of the dress is a red rendering of Simone, looking pensive.

"I'm attracted to beauty and pain, so it's kind of the combination of the two. And that's why I like Frida Kahlo as well. I think there are a lot of female leaders, nurturers, and role models who embody that combination."

Many of Frankel and Forbes' pieces can take as long as six months to a year to complete. Forbes said when she makes gowns she almost exclusively stitches by hand.

"I find stitching very meditative," Forbes said.

One of Forbes' pieces, The Rag Picker, is made entirely of scraps of old, used, and faded fabric found on a designer friend's floor that were then hand-dyed and paired with a 1950s corset. Forbes said the dress speaks to the wasteful nature of the fashion industry.

"My stories aren't always inspired by real people," Forbes said. "My work is inspired by the work I came up with. This is a story about the rag picker who chooses the rejected to make beauty, and that's where I come from. Much of the material I use is deteriorated. We need to see the beauty in what we already have."

Forbes said what she loves most about working with wearable art is how accessible it makes being creative feel to others.

"People say, 'Well I could do that,' or 'I've always wanted to do something like that.' And it's like, yeah, do it. Get out your needle and thread and don't be intimidated. Just start stitching."

While Frankel and Forbes' work with gowns started before the #MeToo movement kicked off, they say that and the current rise of feminism also play a role in their work.

"This is a pivotal moment for women's stories," Frankel said. "The experience for us is listening to our own voices as well as channeling the voices of other women throughout history."

Arts Writer Ryah Cooley likes a dress with a little shimmer and swish to it. Contact her at

Clothes make the woman
The Short Story Collection: Narrative Gowns and Feminine Histories exhibit will be on display from Nov. 1 to 25 at Studios on the Park in Paso Robles. Visit for more information.


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