By Ben Terris
Joan Morris, a breast cancer survivor, has seen the ugly side of the disease, including the hospital attire that comes with it.
"When I went to the hospital for a mammogram, I'd spend a large part of my day sitting in a room with 20 other women, partially exposed, with these long thin Johnny Gowns with terrible patterns, and it was very uncomfortable," Morris said. "It was bad enough to be in the hospital anyway, but the gowns only made it worse.
Now, most people would just chalk up the wardrobe as part of the generally consternating experience. Going in for a mammogram already requires the patient to fill her brain with thoughts of illness and to have her breasts squished between two x-raying paddles anyway, so who's going to argue the hospital garb. Fortunately for future generations of Newton-Wellesley hospital patients, Joan Morris is a professor of fashion design at Lasell College in Newton.
With a keen fashion sensed nurtured over 25 years of teaching—Morris even wears her hair like Anna Wintour's pageboy bob, but wears it with a smile— Morris knew she could provide something better. She also knew that the hospital would not be able to afford to finance the design or manufacture of a new gown, so she took it upon herself and her college to make it happen.
After four years, with funding from the school, a $500 grant from a student health insurance company, and more than $1,700 raised from selling donated fabrics, Morris and a group of her students have made 500 gowns, eponymously named "Joanies," with 150 more on the way.
About a dozen students collaborated with Morris to create the prototype, and many more have helped with everything from ironing, to stitching, to picking up fabrics. Now, instead of the old gowns, which left most of the backside exposed, the Joanies look more like a spa robe and offer better coverage.
These teal, hot pink, cobalt and cranberry gowns have been donated to the Newton-Wellesley hospital and will enter circulation in the women's imaging centers of their Natick and Walpole locations starting next month.
"It's definitely our goal to have the Joanie model be the only gown worn by mammogram patients at our hospital," said Ellen Moloney the hospital's Vice President of out patient services. "These pieces are lovingly stitched, and will help show that we put a premium on patient comfort. Coming to a hospital can be an anxiety-ridden experience. Anything we can do to make out patients more comfortable and less anxious, we want to try and do that."
For fashion students at Lasell, a school whose mission promotes social responsibility and connected learning, the project was a perfect manifestation of the college's core values.
"As a student here partially because of its dedication to community service, it's been really nice to be able to do service that is pertaining to fashion design," said Kate Hodgdon, a 22 year old senior. "There aren't a lot that designers that have this option to do what they love while doing such socially responsible work."
For Salvatore Gianni, 24, who graduated from Lasell last year, this project shows a side of fashion that is often neglected.
"A lot of people think that fashion is all fluff, said Gianni. "Well, mental health is as important as physical health, and comfort during a procedure will directly affect how you feel. Normally women have their femininity stripped away by this whole process, now it can be enhanced. Plus if the experience isn't terrible, you are more likely to go in, and more likely to catch cancer. It's just another way fashion can save lives."
Beyond just the mission of the school, many of Morris's students have personal reasons for working on the project.
"Two of my aunts have had breast cancer, they didn't get to wear these Joanies," said Lynn Morris a 21 year old senior. "Well, I now know important something like this is, because I can realize that someone's aunt will be more comfortable because of this work."