Amparo Villablanca, MD & Adele Zhang, MFA

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“Tins of Love” designed by David Lee.

Cardiovascular disease kills more women in the United States than all cancers combined and every minute, a woman in the United States dies of heart disease. February, National Heart Month, is a time when we reflect on the toll heart disease takes and what we can do to increase awareness and prevention.  Since all women are at risk, yet younger women may view themselves as immune, the UC Davis Women’s Cardiovascular Medicine Program, Directed by Amparo C. Villablanca, MD, entered into a unique partnership with the Dpt of Design at UC Davis in 2010 to take the national symbol for raising awareness of heart disease in women, the red dress, and expand its reach to provide a call for early  prevention to all women, including young women.

From a fashion design course to the heart health cause, students majoring in Fashion at the UC Davis Department of Design took on their responsibilities of designers to promote the Red Dress as the national symbol for women and heart disease awareness.  In partnership with the Women’s Cardiovascular Medicine Program and under the mentorship of Adele Zhang, the students have created more than twenty red dresses for raising awareness that heart disease is the leading killer of women by campaigning at the UC Davis Women’s Heart Care Education and Awareness Forum for Community Leaders, the UC Davis Picnic Day fashion show, and displaying their work in the Mondavi Center.

When talking about fashion, we make natural links to the glamour on runway reviews, red carpet events or vogue trends.  How can red dresses be interpreted into the campaign messages for a health subject?  Throughout human history, as witnesses to cultural beliefs and rituals, what people wear is supreme among the material arts.  The most important occasions, from births and deaths to weddings and festivals, are moments when particular textiles are expected to be worn or carried for identities or ceremonial meaning.  Design is human centered.  In particular, apparel design invites attention and engagement, attempting to celebrate the human it complements.

At the UC Davis Department of Design and for the Red Dress project, design is introduced in a broader range to explore how style, technology, and social issues relate to design.  Among design elements, color is the prominent one utilized by designers.  According to Henry Dreyfus, an American legendary designer, it is popularly felt that red, the color of blood and fire, represents life and vitality.  Red also signifies the color of the sun: a symbol of energy, radiating its vitalizing life force into human beings.

The students use red dresses as a metaphor to develop a vivid visual presentation that goes beyond the design object itself.  The red dresses take a humanity approach in tandem with the personal interpretation about heart health by the students, creating a more emotional and interactive process for the viewer.  Charlotte Pong, one of the young designers in 2012, created a dress entitled “Fragile Life” inspired by butterflies.  She took this design project into action not only in the studio, but also to the reality.  She interviewed people around her and had them sign 100 origami hearts, later stitched into a train for her red dress to pledge for heart disease prevention.  As she stated, “Butterflies are able to travel hundreds of miles in order to migrate but can fall to the ground in the blink of an eye.  After all, your heart is simply a small fluttering butterfly locked within your chest.”

Designers use their products to communicate and make ideas tangible.  From the choices of the materials to the silhouettes and fabrication, every detail surrounds the color red in the dresses and represents a story from the young designer’s heart, such as a cupcake liner embellished skirt that reminds people for healthier eating habits (Tins of Love, by David Lee,), piped dress seams that mimic the intricate network of blood vessels  (Afflicted Solace, by Minh-Chau Nguyen), computer-programmed lights that emulate a healthy heart beat (Heart Working, by Nidia Trajo), and hand-dyed linen and gauze in rough textures with broken threads that signify a physically broken heart (Heartbreak, by Faye Lessler).  When these ordinary objects that can be found around us are elaborated through the design process, the thoughtfully developed ideas make them into a heartfelt sensation, which makes the UC Davis Red Dress Collection exceptionally unique, alive and persuasive.  

Many of the students started this project with little knowledge of heart disease and only a few had a strong connection with the notion of family ties on this issue. Yet, through education they all reached the same destination of using their dresses to advocate the hearth health message through research and creativity.  As Ellen Griesemer pointed out in her design statement (Thread as a Metaphor), “…this project encouraged me to get informed and share my realization through design.”  We wear clothing everyday to create our own identities.  To wear dresses in red is a sociable linkage to every woman to remind us that heart disease is the leading cause of death among women.

So, let’s dress up in red for our hearts this February for heart month and remind ourselves that heart disease does not care what you wear, it is the leading killer for women, yet largely preventable through the adoption of healthy lifestyles.  By coming together as women in our medicine and science community we can celebrate our health and be part of this unique effort to utilize design for heart health education and awareness.

Amparo Villablanca is Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine and Adele Zhang is Design Faculty, Design Museum Curator, and design mentor of the Red Dress Collection