STITCHES FOR SOLUTIONS

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By Barry Eitel | Photos by Hemali Zaveri

Flipping through a Land’s End catalog, a New Jersey girl fell in love with T-shirts splashed with
depictions of the Solar System and diagrams of sharks.

However, these shirts were only available in boys’ sizes. When she turned to the girls’ options,
all she could find were ballerina puppies and a mine of rhinestones.

Her mother took to the company’s Facebook page to complain, pointing out that her daughter loves
science (“astronaut” is a current career aspiration), as do many of her friends. Why do boys get to
express their love of beakers and brontosauruses on their chest, but girls have to settle for
general adorableness?

Questions of identity, fashion, and appearance are the burning
torches of Dr. Kelly Reddy-Best’s research. Dr. Reddy-Best is an assistant professor in the
Consumer & Family Studies/Dietetics Department at San Francisco State University, and she explores
where our outsides (clothing) and insides (feelings) intersect.

Dr. Reddy-Best started working with textiles at a very young age. Her grandmother taught her how to
sew and quilt when she was five; her first project was a pair of pajama pants. She took an apparel
construction class in high school (back when high schools still offered electives) and made her own
prom dresses from scratch.

Real-world application and empirical evidence are central to her work, whether it’s attempting to
find the most useful clothes to donate to homeless shelters or determining what T-shirts would get
kids pumped about chemistry. Many of her studies begin germinating on the pages of a notebook she
always keeps close.

She recently completed a study linking the likelihood of overweight children participating in
physical activity and sportswear. Surveying 33 children enrolled in California weight loss camps,
she found extremely small changes in clothing would make kids want to be more active.
More boys would swim, for example, if they could swap out the Speedos for swim trunks. Same goes
for wrestling uniforms.

Basketball and football uniforms are loose and comfortable, but they display the sizes on the
outside for all to see. Taking that information off the clothing would increase kids’ desire to
play, she found.

A study published in The International Journal of Fashion Design, Technology, and Education
discusses a subject dear to her social justice roots—she wanted to see how stress, identity, and
dress codes intersected in the queer community. She talked to LGBTQ women about how they expressed
their identity through appearance, and if that created rifts on the street or in the workplace.
A job might require employees to have “clean cut” hair, but does that mean women can have clean cut
short hair? She found that many women were uncomfortable with navigating those definitions, even if
they just went ahead to the barbershop instead of the salon.

She also found that expressing sexual orientation through appearance was more important to
women who had just come out—many would crop their hair right away and don rainbow-banded
accessories, like bracelets or beret clips. Sometimes the choices were strikingly intimate, like a
special T-shirt layered under a sweater, a signifier of identity no one knows about besides the
wearer.

Dr. Reddy-Best carries around a notepad with a long list of study ideas; she’s always wondering how
an identity concept could be supported empirically, which then could lead to policy or industry
changes. That is, when she’s not teaching, designing, or building apparel via a 3D printer (right
now, she says, the results are “too plastic-y”).

Oh, and that New Jersey girl? She’s getting the NASA crew shirt that she proclaimed “the coolest
shirt ever.” In response to her mom’s Facebook comment, a note that went viral around the parenting
blogosphere, Land’s End released a series of science-themed shirts in girls’ sizes at the end of
July.

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