Health & Fitness

UCD’s ‘Red Dress’ exhibit encourages heart health

A woman dies from heart disease every minute, according to the American Heart Association. It’s the top killer for females – more than any cancer – despite being preventable in 80 percent of cases.

Those numbers have design students at the University of California, Davis, seeing red.

“Red Dress: Design Stories for Heart Health” made its exhibit debut at the UC Davis Design Museum in January. The 18 dresses on display are the top selections from five years of student designs. The frocks are made from red fabrics and represent various aspects of heart disease, from its physical effects to the courage required to overcome it. The exhibit’s captions and signage provide facts about the disease and heart-healthy prevention tips.

Two instructors – one from the UC Davis design program, and the other from UC Davis Women’s Cardiovascular Medicine Program – first teamed up five years ago to make the red dress, already a national symbol for battling heart disease, an inspirational force on campus.

Adele Zhang, museum curator and co-founder of the project, and Dr. Amparo Villablanca, professor and cardiologist, have worked to draw attention to the red dress project. Earlier this month, it was part of National Wear Red Day, as well as an on-campus health fair.

Learning about heart disease is important for all women, but especially for college-age women who can adopt healthy lifestyles early on, Villablanca said.

“(The students) have to do the research, and then they have to design for the future,” Zhang said. “Designers can’t just make up an object. They have to understand the concept and the subject and the material. This project is getting more and more popular, because they’re making a dress for a purpose.”

Every year since 2010, undergraduate students in Zhang’s fashion design course have had the option to craft a red dress for heart disease awareness, accompanied by a written story about its inspiration. For some, the dress pays tribute to a loved one who has battled the disease. For others, the dress sends a universal message of courage and hope.

In the past, students have unveiled their designs at a one-night fashion show to raise funds for heart disease research. This year, the dresses are on public display through March 13.

Also new this year is the involvement of cardiovascular patients in the project. Betty Chen and Heaji Richards, both seniors studying design, made up one of two student teams tasked with customizing a dress for a person with heart disease. Their subject requested a floor-length dress with a strap on only the right shoulder, to show off a surgical scar on the opposite side, they said.

The patient modeled the dress during an educational forum as part of the university’s “wear red” celebrations and will keep it permanently. A photo of the dress is on display at the exhibit.

“She wanted to show everyone what she had overcome,” Richards said. “She wanted lots of drapes and fabrics on her dress, so we made it customized for her. And we put on chiffon and trim on her bodice to represent the blood vessels and arteries of the heart.”

For Chen’s solo design, also in the exhibit, she thought about the Chinese lotus flower, a symbol of survival even in harsh conditions.

“I want to encourage the patients, even though they have heart disease, to continue living and to persevere,” she said. “It made me realize that as a woman, I should really take care of my body to help prevent that from happening.”

The exhibit is divided into four categories: prevention and awareness, inspiration and encouragement, celebration and appreciation, and freedom and courage.

Ten dresses are from the 2015 collection, while the other eight are pulled from prior years. All will be at the “Power of Red” fashion show at the Sheraton Grand Hotel in Sacramento on Feb. 28.

“More and more students are aware of this issue, and they’ve started to campaign for this and bring awareness to this campus and to this community,” Zhang said. “Fashion is not necessary only for the look, for the sake of fashion. It also has a lot of social issues involved.”

Call The Bee’s Sammy Caiola, (916) 321-1636.

Red Dress: Design Stories for Heart Health

What: An exhibit of 18 red dresses bringing attention to heart disease in women

When: Noon-4 p.m Mondays-Fridays; 2-4 p.m. Sundays; through March 13

Where: Cruess Hall at UC Davis (One Shields Ave., Davis)

Cost: Free

Info: Call (530) 752-6150 or visit

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