Grace House Fashion Project

Monika's design from concept to finished garment. Portrait by Tori Soper.

This year as a part of my custom tailoring and fit class, design students had an opportunity to use our talents to give back.  

I remember Professor Johnson asking us last year if we would be interested in a class where we would make professional outfits for the women at Grace House. Grace House is a residential program that provides interim housing, emotional and spiritual support, and professional counseling to women who are exiting the Illinois prison system.  

We all were excited about the opportunity to learn how to tailor garments to fit on real women sizes, instead of the typical model size 6 or 8. For our first trip to Grace House we created a slideshow presentation on how to make the best first impression in an interview with professional dress. 

The atmosphere at Grace House was welcoming.  All of the women said hi and smiled with excitement as we entered.  As we were paired up, they were very excited to get going with measurements and sketching.  

My resident partner, Tracey, expressed her excitement with me and her trust in what we would create. I then went ahead and took her measurements: bust, ribcage, low hip, hi hip, waist, and height.  She has a very kind and spunky personality. She was clear to me on what she likes and what she doesn’t like. I could tell she was drawn to simple, classic, tailored looks. She described to me her personality and style as soft spoken, confident, and determined.  I then made a goal for myself to design something that would personify this personality.

I then asked her a series of questions to get inspired: Tracey told me her style inspirations are Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein.  I learned she likes silhouettes that show off her shape, but does not like low cut tops, as she said she is more of a tomboy. Some of her favorite colors to wear are brown, cream, and black.  The materials she is most comfortable in are knits and silks.  Her inspiration images show a Calvin Klein suit and double breasted jackets.  She seemed to like streamlined, sleek, and classic looks. 

After sketching a few ideas, we decided to go with a black wool suit with a cotton knit cream shirt.  The jacket has a waist seam to create a nice fit and stops at the hip to create the image of a small waist. The gold knit top is fitted and has a black stripe at center front, to add some glitz and something simple to the basic knit top. I hoped that Tracey would feel confident in a suit that had great fit but which also was fashionable and professional.  

After working on patterning and sewing our looks in muslin to fit the women at Grace House, we then went as a class to pick out final fabrics. Seeing the fabric always makes the idea or concept in the sketch so much more real. 

We had two weeks to fit the garments and sew them to perfection. We wanted to make them perfect because the women were going to have professional portraits taken in their outfits on our last visit. I spent every day of those two weeks in the fashion lab, and the Thursday before we left, the whole class (including Professor Johnson) was in the lab finishing everything up until late in the night.  But seeing all of the women’s faces and excitement when they tried on the garment really was rewarding. 

All the hard work was recognized and appreciated by the happiness and confidence expressed by the women as they had their pictures taken. I was so happy to see my goal met, as Tracey looked confident and professional. The icing on the cake was that the Chicago Tribune realized how life-changing this experience had not only been for the women at Grace House but also for us students, who don’t always get this immediate satisfaction for our hard work. 

For more, check out the story and video and photo slideshow by the Chicago Tribune.