Utilizing A University Clothing And Textiles Collection To Implement A Workplace Dress Program

Utilizing A University Clothing And Textiles Collection To Implement A Workplace Dress Program

Diana Saiki
Ball State University


Clothing and textile collections are common in family and consumer sciences programs, but they are underutilized resources for the community. These collections can help address a number of community issues in a positive and entertaining manner. The purpose of this article is to present and assess a program about workplace dress that incorporated a historic clothing and textile collection at Ball State University. The program was developed by faculty, students, and collection staff. Community members from organizations serving low-income groups participated in a presentation that included interacting with collection artifacts, a shopping trip with fashion students who served as consultants, and a style show. The results demonstrate that seventy-five low-income men and women learned about clothing fit, appropriate workplace dress, and selecting workplace dress within a particular budget. Participants also enjoyed the program. It was a mutually beneficial activity merging resources from the collection, university, and community.


clothing and textile collections, workplace, low income


University clothing and textiles collections developed during the early 1900s and have continued to grow (Welters and Ordoňez 2011). Although these collections are primarily used for teaching and research, they also can serve as an effective bridge between academia and the public (Cross 2009). Clothing and textile collections have been described as important in providing information about family and clothing, and have been noted to be an “untapped source of information” for extension agents and other practitioners (Arthur 1997, 58).

The museum profession has started to discover potential in working with community partners to teach the public about contemporary social issues, such as the potential to host an exhibition of art by the homeless or making an exhibition about gun violence (Born 2006). This approach to museum offerings is mutually beneficial: museums gain exposure to different audiences and the needs of disadvantaged community members are addressed. Clothing and textile artifacts are particularly reflective of societal values (e.g., Hauf 2010), providing opportunities for such exhibits and education programs.

Appropriate workplace dress has been a component of job placement programs in partnerships with universities, community agencies, and retail industry. The topic is particularly relevant to regions where the job market has suffered greatly from economic recession. With the rise in jobless claims, reviewing the appropriateness of their clothing for interviews is often the last thought on the minds of the many out-of-work populations. The topic is important, however, as research has shown that it greatly affects acquiring and keeping employment. Also, the trend toward casual since the late 20th century has caused confusion about what is appropriate to wear to work (Bixler and Nix-Rice 2005; Christman and Branson 1990; Underwood et al. 2002).

This topic is one of the many that clothing and textiles collections can address as a potential contribution to the already established resources of community and industry partnerships. The purpose of this paper is to discuss and assess an outreach program as part of a university clothing and textile exhibition aimed at teaching low-income job seekers about workplace dress.

Review of literature

 Whether a part of a larger community or a university setting, museums are significant as the “keepers of community history, values, innovation, and provocative ideas” (Born 2006, 7). There are many examples of teaching with collections and using collections reported in the literature. One strategy noted to overcome the image of museums being distant and cold is developing exhibitions and programming to address contemporary social issues. For example, an exhibit may trace poverty within a community with related programming featuring low-income artists. These programs help the community address a social issue and enable the museum to build community connections (Born 2006). Similar observations have been made by museum professionals. In such programming, community groups gain increased knowledge about topics while the museum gains a sense of gratification in helping others, and it broadens and deepens the scope of its audiences. However, it is important for the museum to be flexible and resilient given the different entities involved (Henderson and Sullivan 2002).

University clothing and textiles collections are made to fulfill a university’s mission, which varies somewhat from a community museum’s focus of collecting and preserving cultural history (Welters and Ordoňez 2011). Community programs that incorporate university clothing and textiles collections include exhibition tours and presentations for schools, church groups, and special interest groups (Marcketti, et al. 2011; Welters and Ordoňez 2011). A notable example was reported by Miller and Portillo (1996). The authors discussed revitalizing a collection’s visibility in the community by developing a program using student help about the socio-cultural aspects of the millinery. It involved historical assessment of the collection with reporting by local media. The extra media attention resulted in donations and invitations to present to community groups. An exhibit featuring the collection’s hats was developed with related education programming for K-12 audiences, for example, using hats to stimulate creative writing. Kits with historic hats were also made to take to various classrooms.

Artifacts are rich with meaning (Eder 1998) and can reveal much about the economy, religious beliefs, government, technological level, community and family life, social customs, and the arts of a region. Within lessons, artifacts add interest to a lecture and can be discussed in terms of identity, function, and meaning. They can represent symbols, designs, or styles. Artifacts make   history and elements of a culture easier to understand (Hauf 2010).

Numerous strategies have been identified for incorporating artifacts in community outreach programs, particularly for young learners, such as drawing and interviewing others about artifacts (Morgan 1991). Often suitcases or kits of artifacts about a particular subject are used to stimulate discussion (Wasta 2001). These kits include primary sources, such as journals, symbols, manufacturing goods, and artifacts from archaeological digs (Morris 2000). A similar strategy uses a “journey box,” which takes learners through a historical journey with artifacts (Labbo and Field 1999).

Artifacts from clothing and textiles collections are mainly used in teaching historic and cultural lessons to university students (Welters and Ordoňez 2011). However, these artifacts have been incorporated in other fashion courses. For example, an activity was implemented in a visual merchandising class where university students made a web page featuring collection artifacts merchandised to simulate selling in the contemporary vintage market (Sampson 2006). 

Several programs about teaching workplace dress have been discussed in the literature with varying strategies to teach low-income job seekers. A description of three programs follows.

Saiki (2005) detailed a successful program for low-income job-seeking men and women participating in an employment agency. Workplace dress was presented within the context of the reasons that people wear clothing, including function, comfort, psychological self-enhancement, and aesthetics. The guidelines were presented by two individuals, one appropriately and another inappropriately dressed for the workplace. Assessment of the program demonstrated that community job seekers learned from and enjoyed the program. However, job seekers noted that the outfits presented were more expensive than what they could afford, and the presentation was changed based on audience responses by adding a statement that dressing for the workplace is a challenge for everyone, not only low-income individuals, because of the general trend of dressing down. These ideas could be incorporated in future presentations, thus lessening the gap between the presenters and the audience.

McLeod (2003) discussed a workplace dress program called “Fashion Takes Action” that was implemented by a university and Sears retail stores. Low-income women shopped with fashion experts at Sears to find appropriate workplace dress. Interpersonal relationships were developed, and media provided coverage. All these factors made the program a success. Participants learned about traditional business dress, guidelines for business casual dress, and shopping for workplace dress within a budget among other aspects of dressing for work, and their self-worth as measured by qualitative interviews and a quantitative survey increased due to participating in the program. However, participants expressed some anxiety. To ease their nerves, the fashion experts gave them individual advice and shared personal stories of challenge with regard to dressing.  After noticing participants did not want to talk to others they knew about their participation in a program known to be for low-income, the researcher  suggested to frame the program positively as one of inspiration rather than as a give-a-way.

“Clothing Collaborative” was a workplace dress program that supported clients as identified by state- and community-based services (Turner-Bowker 2001). Participants visited a central location to choose donated clothing items for work. The organization also ran sporadic workshops about workplace dress. After interviewing ten participants it was found that participants gained an understanding of the importance of dress for interviewing.


A trend in museum exhibitions and programming is to broaden the scope to critical issues in society, which results in mutual benefits for the museum and community (Born 2006). University clothing and textiles collections have great potential to be used in such projects. Numerous programs by retail stores, universities, and employment agencies incorporate several strategies to teach low-income populations about workplace dress, including information sessions, shopping activities, and media coverage. Sometimes their messages are not heard by participants who perceive the message as a “singling out” of their social group (Saiki 2005; McLeod 2003). Using university clothing and textiles collections may help communicate this message in an entertaining and impartial manner. The purpose of this paper is to discuss and assess a program developed in partnership with a university collection, employment agencies, and retailers aimed at teaching unemployed community members lessons about workplace dress.


This education program  was developed as part of an online exhibition created by museum staff, an undergraduate FCS education student, a fashion graduate student, and two fashion professors.   The program was reviewed and evaluated before implementation by a team of students (mainly enrolled in fashion merchandising and apparel design) and representatives from community organizations. It was developed to cater to the low-income community. Organizations that serve the unemployed, such as YWCA and Teamwork for Quality Living, were invited to participate in the program. Fashion students enrolled in an intermediate apparel construction and fit course served as consultants to the community participants. Prior to the start of the program, these students learned about fit and professional dress. In addition, representatives from the participating community organizations prepared students to work with low-income populations.

The program included three meetings. First, community participants attended a “meet and greet,” where they met with university partners, completed a pre-program survey, examined related artifacts from the collection, and participated in a one-hour instructional presentation about workplace dress. This first meeting was held at a variety of locations, such as the collaborating university and the local library. Next, community job seekers partnered with university fashion students to shop at local second-hand stores for appropriate workplace dress within a budget. Finally, community job seekers showed their new professional looks at a style show and completed a post-program survey. These shows were held at the regular meeting place of the participating community organization. The initial meeting, shopping, and style show were completed over a two- to three-month time period.

Four primary activities were used to teach participants about workplace dress. Activities one and two occurred at the first meeting. First, the participants visited an online exhibition that featured artifacts from the university’s clothing and textiles collection. The initial section of the exhibition included suits from the 20th century. Text panels, the suits, and embedded links to videos highlighted fashionable silhouettes of each decade. The section that followed featured artifacts from the 1930s and 1940s to demonstrate how the economy influenced dress. For example, a shoe with a clunky sole from the period was discussed as saving money for the wearer (less likely to wear out). The exhibition also had a section with related educational activities. The activities incorporated into the outreach presentation (second activity) included a game in Adobe Flash software where the participant dragged period shapes (e.g., inverted triangle for 1980s) to the appropriate suit silhouette (see Figure 1). For the second game the participants dressed a male or female figure in as many outfits as possible using a predetermined number of articles of clothing (see Figure 2).


Figure 1. Screen shot of game to drop and drag period shapes.


Figure 2. Screen shot of the second outfit game, female version.

For the second activity, community participants attended a presentation. The two presenters helped develop the online display and education program (fashion professors and students who study fashion and FCS education). The presenters introduced the topic by discussing the history of the dress-down trend and the impact that appearance has on promotions, employment, and perceptions. The group discussed their first impressions of the presenters – one presenter was dressed in casual clothing and the second presenter in appropriate workplace dress. The participants discussed common features of the historic suits in the online exhibition. The presenters identified components of traditional workplace dress for men (e.g., suit, dark colors, and so on), noting its roots in the history of the classic business suit. Then the presenters identified the components and features of workplace casual dress given the features discussed in the historic and traditional business suit. Fit was discussed, followed by participation in the online matching silhouette game. Finally the wardrobe concept was presented and participants completed the related wardrobing game.

The third activity was shopping at second-hand retail stores Goodwill Industries and a locally owned secondhand store. Goodwill Industries joined as a partner because the program met the company’s goals of assisting with work and employment training. The locally owned secondhand store was added later because it offered different merchandise from Goodwill Industries. The clothing was funded through grants offered by local community foundations. Fashion students served as consultants by assisting community participants with selecting appropriate clothing and making any necessary garment alterations. For the final activity, these looks were featured in a style show that was mainly developed by the local community program participants as part of their regular meetings or special events. Preparing for the style show required part of a day to prepare and distribute clothing. The style show lasted about one hour and was held at the community organizations’ meeting sites. The format of the show varied by community organization. The community participants kept the clothing purchased for the program.


Pre/post-program surveys included fourteen seven-point Likert questions prompting assessment of program concepts (see Table 1). Survey questions were developed by the team who created the display and outreach program. The main points in the presentation were highlighted, including concepts about fit, appropriate workplace dress, and shopping for workplace clothing within a budget. The post-program survey also asked participants how well the program maintained their interest and how much they would use the information in the future. Participants could also make further comments. The survey was reviewed by two fashion professors, the community organizers, and the participating students (FCS education and fashion). Program organizers were available to answer questions to clarify the survey statements as participants completed the survey. Pictures were also taken of the participants’ new looks. Pre-and post-program questions were analyzed statistically with a ttest. The pictures were analyzed for appropriateness of workplace attire. Appropriateness was documented as clothing type including classic business attire (business suit; jacket, pants or skirt, and button-up shirt) and business casual attire (sweater, button-up shirt, and dress pants). Any other dress-types were categorized as inappropriate (e.g., jeans, tight-fitting knit tops). Two researchers independently analyzed the written comments about the program and the pictures. One of the researchers was a fashion professor who participated in the development of the program. The second researcher was a dietetics graduate student who was not involved with the program. After independently analyzing the data, the two researchers discussed and compared their results until agreement was reached.


The program was completed three times with a total of seventy-five community members from two organizations serving low-income job seekers. Of those responding to the demographic section (n = 49), 28.47 percent (n = 14) were males and 71.43 percent (n = 35) were females. Participants were 18 to 72 years old, with most being 30 to 39 years old (n = 16; 32.65 percent).

Responses to the Likert questions significantly changed pre- to post-survey except for the questions “I am comfortable with shopping for second-hand clothing” and “I know how to make basic fixes to clothing, such as reattaching a button and fixing a hem” (see Table 1). The mean score for the statement “The information presented is something I will be able to use” was 6.07 with 7 being strongly agree. The statement “The activities kept my interest” had a mean score of 6.18.

Table 1. Pre-and post-test comparisons to assess participant learning from the program.

Question N Pre-test Mean Post-test Mean t Test Df p Value
I know my body type 55 4.91 5.71 -3.504 54 0.001
I can identify which professional clothing items will look the best on me 55 4.44 5.60 -4.787 54 0.000
I am confident that I know how to determine if a garment fits 55 4.75 5.53 -4.077 54 0.000
I am confident when it comes to finding clothing in my size 55 4.80 5.73 -3.594 54 0.001
I know what professional clothing will look best on me 54 4.35 5.31 -3.778 53 0.000
I have an extensive knowledge of what is appropriate in                different workplace settings 54 5.00 5.57 -2.210 53 0.031
I know the difference between workplace casual and traditional work place dress 53 4.81 5.68 -3.850 52 0.000
I know how to build a wardrobe plan using select garments 54 4.00 5.57 -6.716 53 0.000
I know how to build a wardrobe on a limited budget 54 4.35 5.76 -5.391 53 0.000
I am comfortable with shopping for second-hand clothing 55 5.98 6.13 -.721 54 0.474
When shopping for clothing, I am confident that I can find quality products that will last 54 5.07 5.96 -3.591 53 0.001
I know how to reuse different parts of a garment to create something new 55 4.00 5.24 -4.245 54 0.000
I know how to make basic fixes to clothing, such as reattaching a button and fixing a hem 55 4.36 4.87 -1,641 54 0.107
I am familiar with historical silhouettes and how they have affected professional dress over time 55 3.05 4.64 -5.394 54 0.000

Written comments by participants noted they learned from and enjoyed the program. All but two of the fourteen (85.7 percent) participants who made extra comments were positive about the program. These positive statements included enjoyment (e.g., “awesome”), and statements about learning and gratitude. A participant wrote “loved the clothing website, esp. the activity.” Another commented about the shopping activity: “The gals were very helpful when we were shopping. We had fun.”  A respondent noticed a transformation in appearance and attitude in themselves and others: “I liked the transformation – the before pics versus the ‘new look.’ You could see a change in attitude as well as appearance.” Two (14.3 percent) participants made suggestions to improve the program and expressed a desire to learn more. A participant said “go into more depth about body type and what each should wear.”  In the 31 pictures analyzed, the majority chose to wear suit jackets and slacks or skirts (83.88 percent). Those that did not wear these classic business items chose appropriate shirts, sweaters, and slacks. Only one picture was categorized as inappropriately dressed (3.2 percent) wearing a tightfitting knit top with a low neckline.


Results demonstrate potential in using clothing and textile collections to explore community issues, such as appropriate dress in a work environment. Responses to statements about knowledge of professional dress, traditional business to business casual dress, individual fit, wardrobe building, and suit silhouettes during the 20th century showed significantly greater understanding pre- to post-programming.

Participants gained an understanding pre- to post-programming of shopping for quality products, but did not demonstrate an increase in comfort with shopping for second-hand clothing. The mean pre-programming score was already agree (5.93), increasing slightly to 6.13 post-programming. This population may already have knowledge about shopping at second-hand stores. It may be a lesson that future programs do not need to include. Other venues of obtaining clothing could be incorporated, such as online shopping or shopping at retail stores that sell new goods, training participants to look for the best deals.

Participants indicated increased understanding of how to reuse different parts of a garment. However, the responses to understanding how to fix garments did not change pre- to post-programming with a neutral mean score (4.36 to 4.87) for both surveys. The program did not require participants to complete the activities in the online display related to fixing garments. The result indicates that hands-on interaction with concepts is necessary with such programs.

As found with previous workplace dress programs, this program stimulated similar responses of confidence and self-efficacy (e.g., McLeod 2003). In addition, there was not an indication of self-consciousness of participants’ social group as found in assessments of previous workplace dress programs (Saiki 2005; McLeod 2003). Approaching the subject as a historic trend using historic artifacts from a collection may have helped buffer the perceived social differences between the presenters and the audience.

The program stimulated positive mutually beneficial relationships among the university, the collection, retailers, and the community members. Participants learned from the program. University faculty benefitted by seeking funding from local community foundations and gaining connections with community agencies. Industry retailers and the university clothing collection gained publicity and, as noted in previous literature, flexibility and some coordination of efforts were required because of the many agencies involved, each with its own way of working (Henderson and Sullivan 2002). Community organizations gained access to resources collaborating with a university apparel and textiles collection, such as historic artifacts, university facilities, and student assistance.

The program is an example of how a university clothing and textiles collection can be utilized in outreach programming to help address a social issue. There are numerous other issues that can be addressed in collaboration with a clothing and textile collection as these artifacts reflect societal values and lifestyles (e.g., Hauf 2010). For example, clothing materials could be examined from a sustainability perspective or body images through time could be a focus, featuring the fashionable measurements of clothing through history. Further study could examine the long-term impact of this program on the participants with regard to continued wearing of professional clothing and success in job placement.


Thank you to Dr. Jinhee Nam, Jessica Beck, Debra Shidler, Bethany Hall, and Jeff Hurst for their collaborative efforts with the project and to Discovery, The Community Foundation of Muncie & Delaware County, and the Indiana Campus Compact for providing funding for the program.




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