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Heather Steeves

Heather Steeves tries to do things that are fun -- and only things that are fun. So far that's included stilt walking, roller derby and cross-country road trips in her Saturn.

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Posted: April 18, 2014

This week: Blue Wrap Project turns scratchy hospital robes into gorgeous gowns

Written by: Heather Steeves

The idea started with a massive, beautiful Nigerian headdress (a gele). A gele is tight around a woman’s head, then fans out — like this:

Sketch by Judy Gailen.

From there, Judy Gailen’s idea took off. She had a plan for the pile of blue medical wrap on her kitchen table.

“The bottom will look like the top — wrapped. It will be an hourglass,” Judy said. “I worry it will look like a wedding or prom dress; it wants to be different.”

And it will be. Judy’s dress will be made entirely of blue medical wrap. That’s the paper-meets-fabric material that surgeons use to keep tools sterile. Hospitals cover beds with it and make those awful, scratchy gowns with it. Judy is one of several artists creating fashion out of the junk for The Blue Wrap Project fashion show on April 24 at USM’s Hannaford Hall in Portland. The event benefits Partners for World Health. The South Portland-based nonprofit collects medical waste and ships it to countries that could use it.

“Anything that goes into a surgery room in America can’t be used again — whether it’s been used to not. If a nurse grabs a handful of syringes sealed in packages and they don’t open them or use them in the surgery, they have to throw them away,” Judy said.

Instead, Partners for World Health collects those syringes and other usable materials and ships them to Haiti, Rwanda, Bangladesh and other  countries that can use the supplies. The nonprofit wants to ship out 12 cargo containers this year, each with about $250,000 worth of supplies, but it costs up to $15,000 to ship each one. They don’t ship blue wrap because it’s not reusable like a normal towel. It’s also not recyclable.

“I am astounded at the amount of  discarded medical supplies that our organization gathers each year,” said Elizabeth McLellan, president of Partners for World Health. She said the hospitals that donate their waste save money on trash fees, the supplies don’t fill up landfills and it benefits poor people around the world. A win-win-win.

The goal is to raise $50,000 at the fashion show.

That’s where Judy comes in. She’s designed two over-the-top dresses for the fundraiser in years past, a kimono and a ball gown:

Judy Gailen made both the kimono on the left (photo by Mark Rockwood) and the ball gown on the right (photo by Susan Salomon) in previous years for the Blue Wrap Project . Sophie Salomon modeled them both.

But the model she worked with wasn’t available this year. Judy was uninspired. Until her friend Rene Johnson said she wanted in, as a model. Rene has lived in Maine most of her life, but is from South Africa.

“She’s my muse,” Judy said.

After thinking on it, Judy decided she wanted a huge Nigerian headdress (which Rene learned to wrap by watching Youtube videos). Here is Rene:

“I try to explode what I do,” Judy said, looking at her wire mannequin, dressed in just a black corset. “I’m a kamikaze designer. I stare at the dress form and try to figure out how it might work.”

A lot of the designers in the Blue Wrap Project will replicate “real” dresses. Judy is a freelance theater costume designer. She lets the materials do what she thinks they want to do — and if it doesn’t match her original sketches, that’s OK. Expected, really. As she twisted a piece of blue wrap (labeled: “Delivery room kit”) around the mannequin, she took hemostats (scissor-looking tools that surgeons use as clamps to stop bleeding) to pin the material.

“I like my pieces to have a sense of humor. I could put snaps on this, but hemostats are more fun,” she explained.

After making a couple others gowns out of blue wrap, the material is getting boring. To keep it fresh, Judy is painting it this year. She uses cups and tupperware to stamp on circles of paint. Each piece of blue wrap is labeled. One says, “ENT STN Progressive scan camera” the next, “Delivery room kit” most just have slanted black lines on yellowed tape.

“I’ll leave those on. I like the roughness of it — the purposefulness … is that a word?” Judy said, laughing with Rene. “I like that the materials are found.”

“I like that I get to look pretty for a few hours,” Rene said. “And wear heels. What more could a girl want? This is so me. Girly girly girly.”

What: Blue Wrap Project fashion show
When: 6 p.m. Thursday, April 24
Where: USM’s Hannaford Hall
Cost: $50
More info:

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