Birdbrain: Turning Dresses Into Body Armor

The power of female friendship is distinct. Beyond the fun places we hang, the whispers about our crushes and heartaches, the silly jokes, the cross-your-heart-and-hope-to-die secrets—our sisterhood is a strong support network. Whether we say it out loud or not, when we observe a girlfriend going through a challenge or celebrating a victory it strengthens us. It shapes us. We wear each other’s hearts on our sleeves.

Some people send a Hallmark card when they feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude for a good friend. Maegan Carberry makes her friends dresses.

“It’s a long process, but it’s worth it,” she says. “My friends are my heroines, and they’ve lifted me up in tough times. I love being able to do something special for them that is reflective of how much they’ve meant to me.”

They’ve clearly meant a lot. In 2015, Maegan began her project birdbrain, in which she will design, sew, and embroider unique dresses for 100 women who have inspired her in life. Sounds like a lot of hard work—especially because she had no experience at all when she started!

After collaborating with her mother, Dianna, to make a dress for a special occasion, Maegan had a breakthrough. She realized that crafting had a therapeutic effect. Maegan is a survivor of sexual assault, and struggled for many years with PTSD.

“There’s something about zoning out and cutting fabric or the sound of the machine making stitches that puts my mind at ease,” Maegan says. “I’ve done therapy and received support from many people, but this was a completely different degree of healing.”

Upon realizing that she’d tapped into something transformative, Maegan enrolled in classes at the Sewing Arts Center in Los Angeles and drawing classes at the OTIS School of Art and Design. With Dianna’s help, Maegan slowly learned to construct dresses by herself. Well, mostly.

“I am so bad at lining up darts and zippers!” she laughs. “The ones I make myself always have tiny love errors. My mom still does a lot of the hard stuff but someday I’ll get there. It’s nice to learn from her because my great grandmother is the one who taught her to sew and I enjoy that connection.”

While she may still be sorting out some of the more sophisticated skills, Maegan has cultivated a strong sense of style. birdbrain’s aesthetic is a throwback to 1950s Americana, with a modern twist.

“There’s something about taking that classic look and the expectation that all women would be perfect housewives and turning it upside down that appeals to me,” Maegan says. “Especially when you get to know the women who are wearing the dresses. There’s nothing docile or cookie-cutter about them.”

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Her muses include her best friends, relatives, and former colleagues. They range from entertainment executives to school psychologists to recent college grads to political activists to their 3-year-old daughters. Maegan considers their personalities, attributes, shapes and attitudes when she designs dresses. The result is an explosion of color and detail.

Each dress includes a hand-embroidered bird that Maegan believes captures her friend’s spirit. She’s done parrots, hummingbirds, toucans, eagles and a fiery phoenix. The birds are a reference to the book “Bird by Bird,” written by Anne Lamott, and inspired the project’s name.

“When I first had the idea of making dresses even though I had no experience, I thought, ‘What a birdbrained idea!’” Maegan says, which reminded her of the book. “Then I thought about how women who try to express themselves and do bold things are often called crazy. I wanted to do it anyway.”

Maegan has even crazier ideas about what birdbrain can be going forward. She and Dianna have turned it into a non-profit, with the goal of creating a free downloadable resource guide for rape victims that will be widely distributed to those who need help grappling with trauma. She’s also been documenting the process so she can tell the story on social media, as a film, or maybe one day as a museum exhibit.

For now, she’s focused on perfecting the darts and zippers.

“I let the journey lead me,” Maegan says of what the future holds. “There are just so many profound stories in each of these dresses. They’re more like body armor. I made them for the warriors who have fought for themselves and for me. My friends are everything.”

Feature image taken by Sweet Spot Photography.

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