Fashion performance helps Hobart artist process the grief of losing her mother to dementia

Hobart artist Sonia Heap’s work has always been about fashion as a form of expressing identity, but her newest collection, On Memory, uses couture clothing to explore how dementia can see our identity unravel.

Key points:

  • A Hobart fashion show is raising awareness for Dementia Australia

  • The performance focuses on the senses, using textiles, music, lighting and lots of flowers

  • Sonia Heap sought a positive way to manage the dementia journey for carers and future sufferers

The work, performed at Hobart’s Moonah Art Centre, is a response to the grief experienced by Heap as she watched her mother’s memories slip away.

“Our identity is formed from our memories, from things that happened yesterday, to last year, to years ago – we are a collection of threads,” she said.

Heap says dementia takes away those threads, which is why it is so frightening.

High profile clients

Heap is known for her hand-made, highly detailed work, and her clients include the likes of Kirsha Kaechele, the artist and wife of Mona museum’s David Walsh, whose wedding dress she designed using Finnish reindeer suede and hand-polished Japanese and Czech beads.

Kirsha Kaechele commissioned her wedding dress from Sonia Heap.(

Supplied: Sonia Heap


On Memory is not the first time Heap’s couture has used design for a cause.

Her last show in 2016, called The Armoury, used clothing to express surrounding domestic violence, which the designer experienced herself.

Giving back

This time, Heap wanted to use her skills to help cope with and support her mother’s dementia, as well as to raise awareness about the role of Dementia Australia.


Her goal was to create something that would help carers – and ourselves as future sufferers of dementia – find a positive way to manage the journey of dementia.

In 2016, dementia became the leading cause of death of Australian women, surpassing heart disease, and the third leading cause of death of men.

According to Dementia Australia there are 472,000 Australians living with dementia and almost 1.6 million people involved in their care.

“Without the support of the Dementia Australia hotline I wouldn’t have known what to do,” Heap said.

Heap says dementia is something we are frightened of because, by taking away our memories, it takes away who we are.

“It’s terrifying and I think that’s part of the reason we tend to hide people with dementia away — not just because it’s difficult when it gets to a certain point to manage,” she said.

“But it’s also about the lack of awareness and support within society for people with that condition.”

Ms Heap says losing memory means you start to live in the now and life becomes sensory dominant.

“So, what I’ve tried to do with this performance is to actually raise up the senses,” she said.

Five models stand wearing floral dresses alongside designer Sonia Heap, wearing a matching dress. Hobart artist Sonia Heap (right) backstage with models wearing frocks with flowers.(

Supplied: Sonia Heap


Raising up the senses

Heap said her mother was with her throughout the development of the performance.

“When she’s touched the fabric, the lighter silk chiffon, or silk organza, and she feels it move across her hand, she says it’s almost not there,” she said.

White silk gazar, with hand embroidered french knots. Silk gazar, with hand-embroidered French knots: “Hours of sequins are a memorial, an ode … I sew my memories into the fabric”.(

Supplied: Sonia Heap 


On Memory is about light, music, touch, and the movement and colours of the clothes.

Collaborating with lighting designer Jason James, the performance is an ephemeral experience, seen through fog-like mist and dementia-friendly lighting.

“When people with dementia get agitated or overwhelmed with this world that doesn’t make sense anymore, sitting in violet light is a calming, beautiful space to sit,” Heap said.

Five female models in light grey organza dresses stand backstage Light and transparent, unadorned fabrics emphasise trying to hold onto memory.(

Supplied: Sonia Heap


She also worked with composer Heath Brown to create accompanything mustic for the performance.

“[It is] a score of aching beauty, that really grasps you, like grief, but which at the end raises you up in a gentle accepting contentment,” Heap said.

The four stages of grief

The show is divided into four parts, each representing a different aspect of memory, identity, loss and grief.

“It’s almost like an emotional poem and the first phase is about the glimpses of memory that do come back,” Heap said.

“The person before you still has glimpses of memory that are like bright points.”

Five models stand backstage in dresses in varying shades of blue. These blue frocks represent grief: “They build from light sparkles in pale blue, increasing depth and layers of tears [threads] and finish in dark blue as we sink to real overwhelming grief”.(

Supplied: Sonia Heap


Part two represents rivers of tears and features dresses with blue threads stitched into crosses to resemble the structure of tears.

“Rain has always reminded me of tears and there have been a lot of tears,” Heap said.

The third section deals with both the loss of memory and the tears that Heap and her mother have shed about that loss.

Blue thread is stitched onto blue fabric in a cross-hatched style. Heap used crosshatching to mimic the structure of emotional tears.(

Supplied: Sonia Heap


“That grief is a terrible thing, and you’re very alone,” she said.

“I think that is mirrored in people with dementia.

“There’s a sense of being alone because they are alone in their suffering and in their own head they see different things to what we see.”

A show filled with flowers

The final phase of the show is filled with flowers to represent both memories and how we memorialise our life through flowers.

Brightly coloured flowers fall like a waterfall against a dark backdrop. Hobart florist The Floral Criteria created flower designs.(

Supplied: Sonia Heap


Sydney-based florist The Floral Criteria designed the displays, while Hobart printing house Inkpot studios printed Heap’s floral designs onto fabric.

The fabric has been transformed into 17th-century memento mori — an artistic or symbolic reminder of the inevitability of death.

On Memory flowers by the Floral Criteria “Flowers give us solace and memorialise the person,” Heap says.(

Supplied: Sonia Heap


“Flowers give us solace and memorialise the person,” Heap said.

“They come as the memory of our loved one but also the thing that gives us joy.

“So, eventually after time passes, we forget about the terrible things they went through and instead remember little joyful moments, and then they live again.”

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