Courtesy of Brandon Wen '15

Tolula, a plus-sized dress form, will be displayed in the Museum of Modern Art.

November 30, 2017

Alumni Undergraduate Project Featured at MoMA in New York City

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When Laura Zwanziger ’15 and Brandon Wen ’15 began working on a project for their product development class at Cornell, they never imagined that four years later, their final product would be on display in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, one of the largest modern art museums in the world.

In their sophomore year, the two fiber science and apparel design majors were tasked with designing a collection for underrepresented demographics. It was Wen who came up with the idea to design for the plus-sized market.

“I actually got the idea from a nude drawing class where I realized I enjoyed drawing plus-size models because of the elegance and curves of their bodies and thought it would be a great translation to fashion,” Wen said.

However, the two quickly ran into a dilemma, Zwanziger said.

“All the mannequins [the department] had at half-scale were standardized to a size 4 or 6, which meant we couldn’t use them for drafting original patterns,” Zwanziger said.

In order to create brand new half-scale mannequins, the team had to get creative. Using the College of Human Ecology’s 3-D body scanning machine, the students browsed a database of body scan images and ultimately selected a pear-shaped body type — the most common plus-sized body shape based on their research.

Zwanziger and Wen then divided the chosen body shape into layers, cut and assembled pieces of foam and covered the final form in a soft fabric. The new dress form was fondly named “Tolula,” and she was ready to be used to design jackets, skirts and pants for the group’s collection.

In February, MoMA curators of the exhibit “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” emailed Wen and Zwanziger to ask if they could borrow Tolula.

“Brandon and I were really startled. I initially deleted the email because I’m on a MoMA listserve, so I just thought, ‘ugh another email from MoMA.’” Zwanziger said.

Then Wen received an email as well, and still in disbelief, he asked Zwanziger, “Is there more than one MoMA?”

The section of the exhibit “Dress meeting body and body meeting dress” needed a present-day representation of body types, and Tolula was the perfect fit.

The rest of the exhibit seeks to answer its title question through a presentation of 111 clothing items gathered from various places and times. The first little black dresses, Jewish kippahs, Japanese kimonos and even Colin Kaepernick’s famous 49ers jersey are artifacts included in the showcase.

Even though museums as prominent as MoMA recognize the changing state of sizing in fashion, the industry still remains “fat-phobic,” said Zwanziger.

According to a Plunkett research study, today, 67 percent of American women wear a size 14 or higher, yet the majority of popular clothing brands don’t go past size 10. Even if they do, stores like H&M and Forever 21 merely take the proportions of smaller sizes and scale them up, resulting in ill-fitting clothing for the majority of larger body types.

Now that they have graduated and work in the industry, Zwanziger and Wen seek to continue promotion of body inclusivity with their designs.

“I am currently studying design in Antwerp, Belgium and while my focus is on menswear at the moment, I am still trying to include body inclusive clothing into my design,” Wen said.

“My work is about designing for the body the way it is — whether that’s petite or tall or plus-size,” Zwanziger said.

Tolula will be on display as part of the “Items” exhibit at MoMA’s Manhattan location until Jan. 28.