Artful Engineering: Prosthetics at the Duke Costume Shop

A Unique Collaboration

Tucked into the maze of hallways behind the Bryan Center’s theaters lies the Duke Costume Shop. If you dropped into this room full of sewing machines, fabrics, and hanging clothes last fall you might have met two biomedical engineering students at work. Lucas Hoffman (MEng 2020) and Juan Velasquez (Pratt ’19) were not designing costumes—instead they were collaborating with Erin West, Duke’s new Costume Shop manager, on a prosthetic system to help form clothing for people with disabilities.

two men touch a mannequin on the shoulder
All photos by Melanie Park.

Erin West has a professional background in costume design and costume technology. She has worked for several colleges and universities, including Westminster College, James Madison University, Ohio University, and Washington & Lee University. West has also worked for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the American Shakespeare Center.

The Duke Costume Shop is a vital part of the UCAE Theater Operations team. Each year, the Costume Shop oversees and designs a multitude of productions and collaborations with campus partners such Theater Studies, American Dance Festival, and student organizations.

In this interview by CAST member Sharon Kinsella, West talks with Hoffman and Velasquez about the design challenge that took them from the lab to the sewing machine.

Q+A with Erin, Juan and Lucas

Sharon Kinsella: Tell us about the project. Who is it for, what is it, and why are you doing it?

Lucas Hoffman: Our client had a procedure that left her with one arm. She had what is called shoulder disarticulation, which removes all aspects of her right arm up to the clavicle.

We wanted to create a system that she could use independently on a daily basis that would basically hold her clothing up, so it’s a little bit different than a full-scale limb prosthetic. She has tried prosthetics in the past and didn’t really like the artificial nature of them. When she would wear a non-modified t-shirt or sweater it would always fall off the right side of her clavicle and she would have to constantly pull it up. We wanted to create a device or a system that she could just slip on. Something comfortable and lightweight that would hold her clothing up.

We realized the most difficult part was making it discrete and comfortable. Clothing is very lightweight, so holding it up isn’t a difficult task. After the prototype was validated, we realized we needed a little bit of expertise help, so we reached out to Erin.

SK: Is this project distinct or different from other projects that you’ve worked on previously, and if so, what have been some of the rewards and challenges?

Juan Velasquez: This is the first project that made us think outside of the box. Mostly, in every other biomedical engineering class I’ve taken, everything that is in the lab is all you need. But once we figured out we actually needed to know how to sew, then it was a problem.

LH: It’s really easy to get the mechanical aspect to hold the clothing up, but to get something that is comfortable for our client to wear is something we had to address. It was definitely challenging, and rewarding, too, to work with a client first hand.

EW: It’s certainly a different project for me, but it was exciting, too, and interesting.  I have based my personal career goals around being able to dress all body types and all needs. This particular scenario is something I haven’t encountered in costumes—but I could—and now I have a new idea of how to help support different needs.

mannequin with prosthetic

SK: Why is this project important to you personally, and what do you think is the importance of collaboration across arts and engineering?

LH: This is the first time that I’ve done a project specifically for somebody with a disability. Being able to see the impact that the device is going to bring to our client is awesome. It was really apparent where our skillset ended and where we needed to bring on somebody else. We would never be able to assemble this device without Erin’s skills.

JV: Before we made our first prototypes, we 3D-printed a hard plastic case. When we presented it to her, she said, “Oh I’m not going to put this on.” You have to go out and explore what else is available. Two months into the project she gave us shoulder pads that you slide into shirts and she said, “I want something like this.” Lucas and I just looked at each other and thought, there’s no way we can build anything remotely close to this.

EW: I think there is a weird similarity between costume design, costume technology, and engineering. It’s obviously a really different kind of work, but what we do in here is identify problems and find ways to solve them in a unique way.

It’s obviously a really different kind of work, but what we do in here is identify problems and find ways to solve them in a unique way.

There’s always some kind of creative problem solving and a certain amount of engineering and structuring and figuring out how a design is going to work in a functional way. It seems like kind of a natural collaboration to me. Theater is a super collaborative art form anyway, and I really like working with other people who have different approaches and different ideas. It was fun to use corsetry and costume construction techniques to solve this problem.

SK: What has this project given you to think about as you continue in your respective careers as engineers and as designers?

JV: Just the aspect of collaborating with people that have different skills sets than you and realizing how important that is. Once you realize your strengths and weaknesses, you’re able to collaborate more to produce a final product.

EW: I think the arts have a big social impact and can be a benefit to everyone. Sometimes in my little shop world, wherever I’m working, I feel like I don’t connect with people who see the finished product—I don’t see the audience clapping the way that the actors do. I don’t have that personal feedback. It’s really satisfying to me to have a fitting and dress people because every different body type and every person has their own history and things that they’re self-conscious about. I like to take care of that without ever having to talk about it, to create a positive experience with clothing. Having that type of satisfaction is important, but I do always look for ways that I can use my skillset to help outside of theatre.

This was a really neat way to be involved with actually improving someone’s daily life, instead of their storytelling experience. So many disciplines end up being little islands and not really interacting, so I hope other people will reach out now that we have this connection.

Learn more about the Duke Costume Shop

Sharon Kinsella is a Trinity junior from Forsyth, GA, studying Global Culture, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and Theater. Sharon is an active member in Hoof ‘n’ Horn, Duke Chorale, and The Muse. She is also a part of the Ruby’s Creative Student Arts Team as a Ruby Ambassador.