Clothes are a part of our everyday lives. Clothing can be a work of art, a form of warmth, or a trigger of memories. Do you remember what you wore to prom? Have you ever pulled an old t-shirt from your drawer and suddenly remembered every detail of a summer concert? The feelings and memories we get from clothing are strong, strong enough to overcome even the biggest memory obstacles. In an effort to trigger memories, Assistant Professor Kelly Cobb and UD fashion student Amanda Raker work with people living with Alzheimer’s at the Newark Senior Center to develop fabrics highlighting key life memories, as shown.
For people living with Alzheimer’s, memories can be difficult to recall. However, research shows that music, images, and even clothing can stir up stories from the past. In an effort to help people living with early onset Alzheimer’s to remember their pasts, Kelly Cobb, assistant professor in the Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies, and service-learning scholar Amanda Raker are collaborating with members of the Newark Senior Center to design new clothing with old memories through a program called Wearing Well Being.
The Program: Wearing Well Being
This is Kelly’s second summer working with the Newark Senior Center. Her program, Wearing Well Being, collaborates with people to create wearable narratives—garments based on personal-history preferences and images that resonate with her client. It is a method of co-design where everyone at the table is an equal collaborator.
“Through our experiences we create together,” she said. The program is an ongoing research collaboration with Kelly’s fashion colleague at Kent State, Assistant Professor Kendra Lapolla.
Kelly and Amanda began the summer meeting with people living with early onset Alzheimer’s in an informal interview, asking questions about their lives, what they enjoy doing, and where they worked. Based on these interviews, Kelly and Amanda found 20–25 images for each person- mostly magazine clippings. The images were representative of the conversations Kelly and the clients shared. During the next meeting, the clients collaged the images, like you see in the photo above.
From the collage, Kelly and Amanda were able to develop a fabric, which is what you see underneath the collage.
“It’s especially important for them to map their story on fabric, because this population’s memory is going.” Kelly explained.
Kelly speaks to James, their first client of the day, “We asked you a series of questions like your favorite color, and what you did in your life. We found images, allowed you to make a collage of your favorite pictures, and from that we created a cotton fabric with a repeat pattern. We wanted to share it with you today, but we wanted to make you an item to wear from the fabric as well.”
Kelly explained the process to James, who then launched into stories of his years working at the Chrysler plant, how much he loves golf, and the dog he grew up with.
“You’re probably in the sun a lot, so you need protection. How about we make you a hat?” Kelly asked. James was thrilled with the prospect of having a hat out of the material he co-created. It was pretty incredible to hear the stories of his life, simply based on some fabric.
Researching to Make an Impact
Kelly considers Wearing Well Being to be a study exploring creative approaches to wellness therapy. She told me, “We all wear clothes—clothing is a core need. It’s the first thing we touch when we are born and the last thing we touch when we die. It’s an important attribute of life.”
Though many times we forget about the clothes we put on our bodies each day, for people living with early onset Alzheimer’s it can help them remember so much about their lives. Witnessing the few people that came in to talk to Kelly and Amanda was an incredible experience. People’s faces lit up, they shared memories, stories, facts about their lives, and were so excited to see the fabric they helped to create. It was amazing to hear that so much life experience went into a beautiful fabric.
I wanted to know if there were any benefits from this program that Kelly and Amanda saw with their clients. Newark Senior Center staffer Kat works most closely with the people living with early onset Alzheimer’s. She said she certainly sees them wanting to talk about the images. They may not remember that it is based on a collage that they made, but the activity itself is therapeutic.
Kelly said the “Aha” moments during the discussion of their collage is really rewarding. A client may not remember everything, but maybe they will remember they have played archery with the trigger of images and conversation.
Community Engagement in Fashion
“When people think of community engagement, fashion is probably the last thing they think of, ”said Kelly. “Clothing is a core need, it’s shelter. I am really going at fashion from that angle.”
I asked her about service learning with her students in the fashion department. She said, “I love how the service learning and engagement is expanding massively. It’s so important for the students. Fashion is empathetic and many people don’t understand that…. That is what education is all about, it’s not the day to day textbooks.”
As I though back to the hours I stood in line to buy textbooks in college, I realized Kelly was referring to the experience of making a difference in someone’s life and learning through service. While what we read and memorize for the exams are important, it’s the tangible experience that stays with us the longest. As a result, her courses are designed to mimic real life assembly lines or work situations so her students can understand how fashion comes to life. Then, they can apply their knowledge to solving social problems through an empathetic lens.
Kelly and Amanda made an impact in many individual’s lives this summer with the work on Wearing Well-Being. After I left the senior center that day I couldn’t help but compare Kelly’s passion to the passion of Stanley Tucci’s character in the Devil Wears Prada. In reference to great fashion designers, his character said, “…what they created was greater than art because you live your life in it.”
He truly believed fashion (and the magazine) were a ‘shining beacon of hope’ for young people who were looking to express themselves in ways that may not conform with the norm. His impressive monologue convinced Andy Sachs there is more to her job than just pretty shoes.
Kelly took a similar approach, helping me understand fashion is much more than utility and much more than ruffle skirts or trendy belts. There is opportunity for impact in fashion, you just have to listen to your client and weave in some creativity.
For more information about the Fashion & Apparel Design major, visit their website.