When Erica Donovan unwrapped her wedding dress, she gasped.
Donovan is an Inuvialuk artist from Tuktoyaktuk. She married her partner of two years, Kelly Donovan, on the shores of the Arctic Ocean over the long weekend, surrounded by the community’s trademark pingos.
To commemorate the day, Donovan wore a gown based on the traditional design of an Inuvialuit atikluk, complete with a collar of Arctic fox fur, white sequin designs, and a fringed bottom.
The dress was hand-sewn and designed by Donovan’s cousin and fellow artist, Christina King – also known by her Inuvialuit name, Taalrumiq – and shipped from Taalrumiq’s home in Prince George, BC, to Donovan in Tuktoyaktuk.
“Both me and my partner were just like… whoa,” said Donovan, who sells beaded earrings under the brand She Was a Free Spirit, of seeing the dress for the first time.
“[My partner] was actually the first one to see it, and when I had come out, he just was like, ‘Wow, tell your cousin thank you. You’re the most beautiful bride that will ever be.'”
Donovan said being able to celebrate the occasion while wearing a dress that captured her Inuvialuit heritage “was everything.”
“I’m honouring my culture, and I’m dropping all of the mainstream ideas of what a wedding should be,” she continued.
“I wanted a traditional take on this wedding, and I felt with the help of my cousin … I was able to do that.”
For designer and seamstress Taalrumiq, the experience was equally special.
She cried, she said, when she saw the wedding photos.
“Seeing the happy couple being married on the shores of the Arctic Ocean … the beautiful pingo landscape as a backdrop, and surrounded by family and friends – everything came together so beautifully,” Taalrumiq said.
Taalrumiq’s artwork focuses on clothing and design and she serves as a mentor for the Strong People, Strong Communities mural project. A week-long celebration of the project, with workshops and painting sessions, takes place in Yellowknife next week.
The artist said her Inuvialuit heritage is her driving force.
“I like to put a modern twist on it,” Taalrumiq explained. “People who wear my garments, I’m hoping that they feel beautiful and strong like our ancestors, that they feel empowered and proud to be Inuvialuit, proud to be Indigenous.”
Though she has made atikluks before, Taalrumiq said Donovan’s wedding dress was her biggest undertaking to date.
She drew inspiration from family members to help her take on the challenge.
“While I was creating the piece, I just thought about our childhood,” Taalrumiq said.
“I thought about our naanak, Alice Cockney-Gruben. She was an excellent seamstress. She whipped up a whole wedding party of gowns for our aunt and uncle’s wedding, and she was known to make a full parka just in one evening. That’s a lot to live up to.
“I also thought of Erica and I and our cousins. We all grew up together playing Barbie dolls. We used to try on our aunties’ dresses and heels to feel glamorous. I was thinking of all of that, all the time we spent in our naanak’s sewing room, the distinct smell of hides and furs … and how inspiring it has been to see Erica herself come into who she’s meant to be as a modern Inuvialuit woman and artist.
“I put all of this, all these positive thoughts and love, into every stitch.”
‘We descend from survivors’
Taalrumiq has dubbed the dress an “Arctic confection.” The design and fabric are meant to mimic the northern landscape. The white organdy fabric and sequins, sewn across the chest into a traditional Inuvialuit V-shape, resemble sparkling snow.
Taalrumiq hopes others will find inspiration to create their own designs and “be proud of who they are as Inuvialuit.”
“We descend from survivors. We’re meant to be here,” she said.
“I encourage everyone to just be who they are as Inuvialuit, really own it, and I hope that everyone prospers and does well.”