A Fashion Story Honors Women in Combat | EDGE Talks to Isabella Diorio

With over 2.5 million United States women veterans strong, women have been fighting and sacrificing for their country much longer than you may think — even going as far as disguising themselves as a man in order to serve.

Inspired by the courageous and bold acts of pioneering women in the military and troubled by the rising population in homeless female veterans, Isabella Diorio created the Female Engagement Team (F.E.T.) collection.  This isn’t just any military inspired collection.  It’s storytelling using fashion as the storyteller.  Isabella felt that the topic of homeless female vets was concerning enough given her own personal connection with military family members and friends.  The hidden and brave women that have served the United States military is a story she believes should be told, “my hope for the collection was to bring awareness to the roles played and the struggles faced by female service members”.

Isabella represents an elite small group of designers with consciousness and purpose. Their work is relevant in today’s times and sends a message.  “It’s not just about the garment itself but about the story behind it,” says Isabella. “I felt that the fact that these women go into a male dominated field and are able to compete with the best of them was one that was often overlooked.  With this in mind I wanted to create a collection that showcased this strength and femininity, without compromising the identity of the woman herself.”

Who are these women?

  • Deborah Samson disguised herself as a man to fight in the Revolutionary War, making her one of the first female veterans.  Samson’s enlistment started in 1778 and she used the alias Robert Shirtliffe.
  • Private Cathay Williams, aka William Cathay (disguised as a man), served post Civil War, born a slave, the first documented African American female to serve, Buffalo Soldier.
  • Private Opha May Johnson was the first woman to enlist in the United States Marine Corps, joining the Marine Corps Reserve in 1918 during World War I.
  • Elsie S. Ott was the first woman to receive the U.S. Air Medal and was a contributing factor in the advancement of military medical care, World War II.
  • Col. Ruby Bradley is a survivor of World War II and Korean War and is one of the most decorated women in U.S. military history.
  • Rear Admiral Grace Brewster Murray Hopper served in World War II, Korean War, and the Vietnam War. A destroyer was named after her, USS Hopper, DDG-70, as was the Cray XE6 “Hopper” supercomputer.  As founder of the COBOL programming language, a precursor to many of the software code approaches of today, her work is legendary among computer scientists and mathematicians.
  • Sergeant Leigh Ann Hester of the Military Police Company, who, after the Iraq War, was the first woman since World War II to receive the Silver Star for exceptional valor.
  • Commander Darlene Iskra served in the Navy 21 years and was the first female to command a U.S. Navy ship, served in the Gulf War.
  • First Lieutenant Ashley White, the first woman to die in combat, Afghanistan.
  • Army General Ann E. Dunwoody, the first woman to serve as a four star Army General, before retirement in 2012.

 

[l-r] The Samson Shirt, The Leigh Ann Pants; The Dunwoody Dress | photo: Emily Warfield , courtesy of Isabella Diorio

Isabella Diorio is a recent graduate from Kent State University, Kent, Ohio, holding a BFA degree in Fashion Design.  F.E.T. was her thesis collection.  Since it’s completion, this collection has won various awards throughout the world: Best in Show at the Kent State Fashion Show, was a finalist for the 2020 iD Emerging Designer Awards in New Zealand, and recently won silver in three categories (Apparel Category – Runway Collections, Textile and Materials – Handmade, and Other Fashion Designs – Recycle/Sustainable Fashion) at the 2020 International Design Awards. 

Storytelling is one unique aspect of F.E.T., the other very important ingredient is sustainability.  F.E.T. was skillfully created out of renewable sources – reuse of existing materials: deconstructed thrift store finds, discarded and donated materials, and recycled fabric and scraps from FABSCRAP, a fabric recycling group in Brooklyn, New York.

I believe that what we make and what we wear should be reflections of the world we wish to see.  Sustainability, caring for our Earth, and clothes that speak, that tell a story, are what I work to create and educate others on, because sometimes even the smallest efforts can enact change.

– Isabella Diorio

Clearly Isabella’s design philosophy and practice are fitting to advancing a path forward, a better future for the industry.  Our conversation spanned the why and what it took to compose this intricate body of work – two years of in-depth research of putting herself into the shoes of these women who served, making their story one of inclusion.  Each of the F.E.T. looks, found on her website, bears the name of these women vets, describes the sustainable materials and print finishing technique used, and how its functionality can relate to a military uniform.  The execution is masterful in constructing deconstructed second-hand garments and vintage military uniforms while skillfully incorporating symbolic military details.  F.E.T. evokes a bit of an edge, demonstrating female power and perseverance.  It is a work of art that documents an overlooked part of American history.

The Elsie Jumpsuit, The Vegan Leather Harness, First Aid Purse | photo: Emily Warfield, courtesy of Isabella Diorio

RH: Isabella, talk about why you chose famous women veterans as the theme for this collection, what inspired you, and how you named each style? 

ID: Around the time when I was working to come up with an idea for my thesis collection, I read an article about how female veterans are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population and this really struck a chord with me. I had had many friends and family that served or were serving, and the thought that that could happen to them, from circumstances they couldn’t control, was concerning. I felt that the fact that these women go into a male dominated field and are able to compete with the best of them was one that was often overlooked. With this in mind I wanted to create a collection that showcased this strength and femininity, without compromising the identity of the woman herself. This is why each piece is named after significant female figures throughout the history of the United States armed forces, the focal point being 1st Lieutenant Ashley White Stumph, the first woman to die in combat and a Kent State University alumna. The other women named throughout this collection, were individuals with compelling stories that I found through my research and felt embodied the pieces that I named after them.

The Iskra Vest, The Ruby Pants | photo: Emily Warfield, courtesy of Isabella Diorio

How did you develop this collection with sustainability in mind, what was your process and materials used that made it sustainable? 

After conceiving the idea for F.E.T., before I even began sketching, I was thrift shopping and happened to see some old military uniforms. I already knew I wanted to make the collection as sustainable as possible but wasn’t sure how until I saw the uniforms and came up with the idea to up-cycle them as part of the collection. I started thrifting as many of these old garments as I could and taking them completely apart. A lot of the time when people up-cycle they maintain the shape and style of the original garment, but I didn’t want to do that because I felt it would be counterintuitive to the look I was going for. I instead decided to create my own fabric yardage from the deconstructed pieces.  For additional fabrics, I collected anything I thought might be useful from FABSCRAP, a fabric recycling group in Brooklyn, NY where I was volunteering at the time, from other online deadstock brands, and from people just giving me items they were going to throw away.

It wasn’t until I moved back to Ohio that I actually began creating the finished garments, but by then all I needed was some notions and trims. Keeping in mind the same desire for sustainability, I only used 100% Organic Cotton, eco-dyed thread, and all of my prints were done by creating a bleach paste that could be wiped off then washed out by hand. I used everything I could from the uniforms, zippers, patches, drawstrings, and anything I didn’t use has either been worked into other designs I’ve made or is in a box in my studio.

The Johnson Jacket, The Sarah Skirt | photo: Emily Warfield, courtesy of Isabella Diorio

What technique would best describe your artistic hand and essence of your work?  For example: textile manipulation; unique pattern engineering or design construction; draping, etc. 

Although I dabble in a lot of different design techniques, I’d say my strongest and my go-to is probably my pattern making abilities.

Yes, I noticed ‘pattern manipulation’ in your descriptions.

I’ve experimented a lot with designs from the Pattern Magic books by Tomoko Nakamichi and think that it’s sometimes coolest to take a plain piece of fabric and make it into something unique just by sewing it together.

Why are your designs relevant and important in today’s times, why should your work matter? 

Rhonda, I believe my work is important in these times, because it sends a message, it’s not just about the garment itself but about the story behind it. We’re starting to reach this pivotal point in the world where people are truly beginning to realize that we have to start making changes to our lives if we’re going to continue on. So many companies are jumping on the environmental and social change bandwagons because it’s what’s popular right now, which is great in a way, but I believe that these shouldn’t just be trends, they should be part of our everyday lives. That’s what I hope to get across and teach people with my work. It’s designers like myself, companies like FABSCRAP, and special interest sustainability groups that I hope are able to reiterate these facts enough so that people won’t have to actively think about doing what’s best for the world around them, it’ll just come naturally.

EDGE congratulates Isabella Diorio. Continue to spread your message of female leadership, empowerment, and sustainability in fashion.

Sources:

More information about Isabella Diorio and the F.E.T. collection – https://www.isabelladioriodesign.com/

National Veterans Foundation – Famous Women Veterans Every American Should Know

Military.com – Brown, Sean Mclain, 7 Bad-ass Women Who Made Military History

Photographer: Emily Warfield; photos courtesy of Isabella Diorio

Feature photo details:

[l-r], The Ashley Coat, named after First Lieutenant Ashley White, the first woman to die in combat and the woman this collection is dedicated to (Afghanistan); The Cathay Dress, named after Cathay Williams the first documented African American female to serve (Buffalo Soldier), The Brewster Bolero, named after Rear Admiral Grace Brewster Murray Hopper (World War II, Korean War, Vietnam War), is made using a thick leather sourced from Queen of Raw and vegan leather and utility fabric from FABSCRAP.

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Rhonda P. Hill

Founder, Publishing Editor