How wedding-gown expert Jill Andrews, Fabric Styling ’89, Fashion Buying and Merchandising ’87, helped design new Ebola protective gear

Clothes are rarely a matter of life or death, but in the case of Ebola, they can be. The virus, which causes profuse bleeding, is so contagious and lethal that more than 300 health care workers have died of the disease in the past year. Medical personnel wear hazmat suits to prevent contact with patients’ bodily fluids, but the suits are notoriously ineffective. A team from the Johns Hopkins Center for Bioengineering Innovation and Design has created a better hazmat suit to protect health care workers from infection, and Jill Andrews, a Baltimore-based designer of wedding gowns, was instrumental in the process.

Before she designed gowns, Andrews created costumes for dancers, figure skaters, and Broadway performers. Considering that costumes need to be durable, flexible, comfortable, and easily removable, she realized that some of the stickiest challenges were questions not for a virologist or engineer but for a clothing designer. And though she joined the project on a whim (a friend working at Johns Hopkins forwarded her the email calling for volunteers), her skills in patternmaking and garment construction proved invaluable.

“I knew the zipper in the front had to be addressed right off the bat,” she recalls. “Pints and pints of bodily fluid are all over the front of you, so we had to get the closure to the back of the garment and reduce the number of seams to keep contamination from getting in.”

Jill_Andrews_photo_2The new suit is full of thoughtful details. The extra-large face shield gives patients a clear view of their doctor or nurse, and two vents in the helmet keep it from fogging up. To take off the suit, the wearer simply pulls apart the tabs on the upper back, releasing a waterproof breakaway zipper (designed for scuba divers). Then the wearer steps on tabs on the sleeves and stands up, emerging in one clean motion.

_JHU0881On December 22, the prototype was sent to the White House and approved by Ron Klain, the “Ebola Czar.” The project was also called out in an online slide show released in tandem with President Obama’s State of the Union address. The suit will be produced, though the specifics are confidential.

The experience has opened Andrews’s eyes to the need for empathic design for all protective clothing. “Health care workers and the people in charge of taking care of the dead are putting their lives at risk,” she says. “Working on this project helped me understand the safety they deserve.”

greyline2VIDEO: This Johns Hopkins video shows the features of the new personal protective gear, including the remarkable doffing process.


Featured portrait of Jill Andrews by Nick Parisse ’09