Anne McClain of NASA runs through procedures in the Soyuz MS-11 spacecraft during a vehicle fit check Nov. 20.

The Right Stuff: Clothing to Enable Women’s Accomplishments

Mar 4, 2022

by Susan Sokolowski, PhD

Editor’s note: This article was adapted from the original publication (April 2019) in The Conversation.

I’m the director of the Sports Product Design Graduate Program at the University of Oregon, and equality in product design is my jam. Playing soccer as a Title IX athlete led me to the goal of my life’s work. Although we were breaking boundaries as female athletes, the products we wore were made for men and did not fit our bodies. There were no sport bras, so we played in the bras we wore to school with underwires and no sweat management. Although we were allowed and encouraged to play, we did not feel like we belonged. No one made products for us.

Olivia Echols' final design of the space bra featuring adaptable sizing, packable support, front fastening, radical breathability, and band elimination.

Olivia Echols/Susan L. Sokolowski, CC BY-ND

And now, I’m a college professor where I have students who are keen to invent new products for women. Jessie Silbert who graduated in 2020 completed projects designing gear for pregnant triathletes and female Muslim runners. Sarah Klecker who also graduated in 2020, designed competition and training apparel for female Paralympic racers. Another former student, Olivia Echols (class of 2019), designed intravehicular activity suits for space station activities, which included determining how products should fit for women operating in microgravity.

Olivia Echols identifies issues with the regular Earth-bra that must be overcome to design the ideal space-bra for female astronauts.

Olivia Echols/Susan L. Sokolowski, CC BY-ND

My path to product equality

My journey to become the best researcher and designer I could be began in high school. I wanted to create, size, and fit products for the female body, helping women perform at their maximum potential. It has been a 30-year journey.

In college, I learned about designing for the female form. This included inventing new materials, studying the body anthropometrically, physiologically, biomechanically and psychologically. Learning about materials is important for product innovators because they have so many levers — fibers, yarns, constructions, and finishes — that can be manipulated to develop new technologies.

Anthropometrics is a discipline of human factors engineering that allows us to describe the body shape and size of different populations like men, women, children of specific ages and ethnicities; through circumferential measurements of the areas like the chest, waist, and hip; through understanding the volumes of various body parts like the torso and limbs; and through cross-sections — which helps designers understand how tissue is distributed in a specific region of the body like the breasts.

Designers and engineers study physiology to develop product systems to regulate body temperature and biomechanics to understand mobility within apparel structures. We also study psychology — to understand how humans perceive attributes like silhouette, color, touch, and texture, which can greatly influence how acceptable a new product is for a user.

My early university experiences provided an employment opportunity to work for the Department of Defense, just at the time when women were first allowed to fly in combat. I also spent about 20 years of my career working for a major sports company, leading efforts in women’s performance product innovation, including footwear, bras, and equipment.

Women’s bodies are different

Researchers, engineers, and designers who create performance products for women have many considerations. The most obvious is body shape and size, where product innovators will study the female population in question through 3D body scanning, anthropometry, and statistical analysis of the data. The results of this type of research affect how product patterns are drafted, materials are engineered and how technology is placed around the body, so users can perform jobs safely and efficiency.

Women also have physiological and biomechanical differences, so product solutions need to consider how body temperature fluctuates and muscles develop due to hormones. In footwear design, we think about making sure products are flexible and cushioning systems are engineered to the appropriate load, because women are relatively lighter than men in weight.

Sorry, we have budget constraints

Despite the efforts made researching and developing innovative performance products for women, our work may never be fully funded, implemented, manufactured, and therefore adopted by women, as the ecosystem surrounding our work may not want us to succeed. Most often budgetary decisions for research and development happen outside of the product creation team.

As an example, NPR’s “All Things Considered” revealed that all-male astronauts fit into medium, large and extra-large sized spacesuits, and due to budget constraints, the development of smaller sized suits for women was put on hold for several years, preventing women from walking in space.

These financial decisions often come from outside the product research and creation teams, and those decisionmakers are often men. Considering representation of women at the CEO level, only 8.1% of all Fortune 500 CEOs are women. NASA may not be a Fortune 500 company, but gender disparity certainly exists in the U.S. government.

Budget constraints have always been a way for others to say “no” to supporting efforts that product creation teams dedicate to women. The message really says we don’t want women to be successful or perform to their greatest potential. “No” says you don’t belong because there isn’t any appropriate gear for you. Don’t apply to this job, because you may be putting yourself in a dangerous situation if you wear products that were made for average men.

This is not just a NASA or sports industry problem. The same challenges exist for female firefighters, health care workers, law enforcement officers, construction workers and those who work with hazardous materials.

And this is not just a women’s problem. As I have progressed through my career, I have encountered so many other underserved users who need our help. There are nonwhite users who have anthropometrically different body dimensions than white men, such as African Americans, Hispanics and Asians. Some users have accessibility needs or require extended sizes. Gear should accommodate Muslims who aspire to be active while respecting their religion.

Diversity is needed among product designers as well as the leaders making budget decisions. Otherwise, they may erroneously conclude that one size fits all.

Susan Sokolowski, PhD, has over 25 years of experience in performance sporting goods. Dr. Sokolowski has been recognized internationally, including over 40 utility and design patents, awards from the United States Olympic Committee and Volvo, and featured at the Design Museum London. She is a graduate of the University of Minnesota (PhD), Cornell University (MA), and the Fashion Institute of Technology (BFA).

Feature photo: Anne McClain of NASA runs through procedures in the Soyuz MS-11 spacecraft during a vehicle fit check Nov. 20. NASA/Victor Zelentsov, CC BY-ND.