The Traveling Dress Project: One Dress, Infinite Possibilities

Moira West


When shopping in a vintage clothing store with her dad, Gianella (Nell) Simon came across a gorgeous dress she thought would be perfect for her photography business. She posted a picture of it on Facebook, “and in no time I had so many photographers asking to borrow it, rent it, buy it from me.” It was then she came up with an inspired idea — “I posted the idea of shipping the dress to a few photographers, sort of like the movie ‘The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,’ and it went crazy! Photographers from all over the world joined in,” and the Traveling Dress Project was born.

Style: Destination
Song: “For Rain” by Dax Johnson

Giving meaning to a beautiful accident

“This project was really a beautiful accident.” Nell shared. And it became a way for her to celebrate photography. “I have a passion for photography and what it represents. Photography is about capturing a smile, recording a precious moment in time; it is about celebrating love and life.” The Traveling Dress Project gave Nell an opportunity to share how her peers are able to take one item — a dress — and capture a mood or a moment, using their own perspective to craft something unique.

Sarah Davis Photography

Image by Sarah Davis Photography

But once Nell got started, she began to envision a way to use the Traveling Dress to do good. Because her own daughter was born with a severe cleft lip, Nell decided to focus the project on raising awareness for Operation Smile, a charity that performs cleft lip and cleft palate repair surgeries on children around the world. She raised $1000 through donations from attendees at the SYNC Conference in Florida this year (snagging the Hearts of Fire Award while she was at it), though her ultimate goal is to create a book of all the images she collects, with proceeds going to Operation Smile.

Gayle Dawn Photography

Image by Gayle Dawn Photography

How the project works

Photographers sign up for a chance to shoot the dress at the Traveling Dress Facebook group (right now Nell’s setting up shoots for 2017). Nell and her team manage the list of photographers and determine how, when, where, and to whom the dress will get shipped. Each photographer gets three days with the dress. Day one it arrives, day two is a shooting day, and day three the dress is sent off to the next photographer. “We try to give them notice a few weeks in advance so they can book their models and prepare for their shoot,” Nell shared.

Headstrong Photography

Image by Headstrong Photography

Because it’s an older dress, Nell tries to hand deliver it whenever possible, often driving or flying out to see photographers in the project. Hand delivery also cuts down on shipping costs — a major expense that the Traveling Dress Project tries to offset with sponsors. Nell carefully maintains the dress itself. “It is impossible to avoid wear and tear, so I hand wash the dress as needed and make repairs myself where possible.”

Shella Bella Studios

Image by Shella Bella Studios

The Traveling Dress Project can be difficult logistically for Nell and the photographers who help her keep it running. More than 50 photographers have participated so far in the U.S. and Canada, and this summer, the dress will be leaving the continent and traveling to Europe and Australia. In all, more than 100 photographers are signed up for the Project, with more joining all the time. But for Nell, the Traveling Dress is a labor of love that’s reinvigorated her creatively and connected her with talented photographers all over the world.

Do you have a photography project that’s inspired your creativity? Let us know in the comments below or reach out on Facebook or Twitter by tagging @Animoto.