Stitching together dignity

Professor, students refashion hospital johnnies into 'Joanies'

By Ben Terris
Globe Correspondent / February 22, 2009

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Joan Morris has experienced the ugliness of being ill - including the hospital attire.

"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," said Morris, a breast cancer survivor. "It was bad enough to be in the hospital anyway, but the gowns only made it worse."

Most patients just chalk up the wardrobe as part of the hospital experience, and for women going in for a mammogram, between the thoughts of illness and having their breasts squished between two X-ray paddles, who's going to argue about uncomfortable garb?

Fortunately for future Newton-Wellesley Hospital patients, Morris is also a professor of fashion design at Lasell College in Newton.

With a keen fashion sense nurtured over 25 years of teaching, Morris - who even wears her hair like Vogue editor Anna Wintour's pageboy bob, but with a smile - knew she could provide something better.

She also knew that Newton-Wellesley 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 Lasell, a $500 grant from a student health insurance company, and more than $1,700 raised from selling donated fabrics, Morris and her students have made 500 of the new 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.

Instead of johnnies that leave most of the backside exposed, the Joanies look more like a spa robe and offer better coverage.

The donated gowns, in teal, hot pink, cobalt, and cranberry, are to enter circulation in the women's imaging centers at Newton-Wellesley's 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, Newton-Wellesley's vice president of outpatient 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 our 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 the Lasell 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 Morin, a 21-year-old senior. "Well, I know how important something like this is, because I can realize that someone's aunt will be more comfortable because of this work."

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