This new body of work focusing on women and their health was inspired by the work of my colleagues and students at UC Davis. Six years ago, Dr. Amparo Villablanca, Director of the Women’s Cardiovascular Medicine Program at UC Davis (the first national program of its kind) reached out to the Dept. of Design at UC Davis to create a collaboration whereby fashion students would create red dresses to help promote awareness of women’s cardiovascular disease (CVD). Led and inspired by faculty member Adele Zhang, students now annually create a red dress collection. Each dress is inspired by a student’s story or interpretation of CVD.
A red dress is the current symbol used by the American Heart Association and the National Institute of Health to promote awareness of CVD, the number one killer of women, however the primary reach of these organizations are fashion shows and women's magazine articles during the heart health month of February. A red dress is an ambiguous symbol at best, loaded with historical implications of sex and sin. Even though the symbol was adopted over 10 years ago, I had no idea about the significance of CVD until I saw the UC Davis student projects which conceptually reframe the red dress into a true message campaign.
In 2012, someone I knew well, who was younger than me, collapsed on her bathroom floor and went into a stroke induced coma; she died five days later. I took stock of my own health behaviors—I was overweight, often sat in front of a computer for long periods of time, and was generally stressed out. I also felt that I could use my artwork to promote positive messages about health and wellbeing. I had previously worked in healthcare throughout the 1980s and early 1990s including women’s health and education at Planned Parenthood and employee wellness at UC Berkeley. The timing seemed right to bring things full circle. The first step was to avoid hypocrisy so I lost 30 pounds over the course of a year, reaching my new healthy goal weight in December 2013. While I am now maintaining my weight, I’m still working on reducing stress and standing up every hour!
I started collecting red dresses that were previously worn by real women. The result is 365 red dresses—a year of red dresses—in a variety of shapes, styles, shades of red, sizes and ages. Some have rips, stains, wrinkles or other signs of wear but collectively they form a picture of humanity, or “womanity” that is more powerful than one sexy red dress. Each dress is presented on a red fabric wrapped hanger with a hang tag sharing a personal woman’s story, a proverb about health, or a fact about heart disease. Visitors are encouraged to add their own story to the installation on the hang tags provided.
The sculptural garments in the exhibition are created from red textile waste salvaged from the garment industry. By recycling waste there is a subtle aspect which parallels the waste from disease, but the key element of these garments is making visible what is often invisible, not only the disease itself but also the stigma of a disease that may be exasperated by personal lifestyle choices.
Rounding out the exhibition are diet books and wall pieces. These are stitched fabric structures created from reclaimed and pre-consumer textile waste. The books are inspired by email spam and include actual language from my inbox. For the wall panels, embroidered and printed words reinforce the health messages that float around us in information clouds reminding us to choose healthy behaviors such as losing weight, not smoking, reducing stress, getting plenty of sleep, and exercising regularly. The work is sardonically punctuated with these types of texts, reminding all of us to become more aware and pro-active in maintaining our own health and well-being.
Image above: Emboli (2015) photo: John Bagley, model: Leticia Garay
Copyright 1982-2015 Susan Taber Avila