Expression through duct tape

Suzi Starheim

Sarah Nedbalski walks up to the front of a crowded classroom and unties her trench coat as if nothing unordinary is lying beneath it. But the squeaking of the uncommon article of clothing under the trench coat can be heard before her presentation even begins.

Sarah, a freshman integrated language arts major, made this dress, as well as nearly 20 others, completely from Duct Tape and garbage bags, and wears them around campus proudly for students to see.

She makes these dresses just for fun and wears them mainly to her favorite concerts. They set her apart from the rest of the crowd and help her get special recognition from the bands she admires most.

Sarah said she specifically remembers being recognized at Cedar Point by one of her favorite bands, Family Force 5. She made a dress for one of their concerts in Akron, and they remembered her as the “Duct Tape girl.”

“Well, as for personality, I would say that some of my interests would be going to concerts and that I like mostly alternative music,” Sarah said. “I really like creative things because I find them to be stress relievers.”

Sarah began her hobby in early middle school at a local craft store. She remembers being mesmerized as an old man stood in front of a group of shoppers doing a demonstration with Duct Tape. He let her make her own rose out of the colored tape.

She ran home and began experimenting with Duct Tape alone in her room. She started with simple flowers, then moved up to wallets and purses and finally graduated to dresses and clothing. Her first dress took nearly 10 rolls of Duct Tape to make and was so stiff she could hardly move.

Making each dress

Sarah now knows how to make each dress quickly and efficiently and finds it to be a stress-reliever. On average, she uses two to four rolls of each color Duct Tape for each dress and usually takes two to four hours to complete one from start to finish. For a full-length dress, it usually takes about a full day’s worth of work.

“There have been times where I’ve gone to dances, and I won’t start the dress until midnight the morning of the dance,” Sarah said.

Each roll of Duct Tape costs Sarah $3 to $4 and a complete dress will normally cost fewer than $20. She spent fewer than $50 on her full-length, blue and purple, butterfly-themed prom dress she made two years ago.

Sarah typically begins by making the top half of the dress on her body while wearing a bikini top. She wraps herself in a garbage bag, tapes over the garbage bag and then flips it over and begins taping the pattern on what will become the outside of the dress.

The noise of cutting and tearing while constructing the dresses is something Sarah has gotten used to, and her family now knows her process and knows how much time to set aside before concerts and dances to tape her in.

To get in and out of the dresses, Sarah needs scissors, more tape and a helping hand. She has gouged her back with scissors getting out of her dresses before and now relies on family members to tape her in and cut her out.

Sarah wears the dresses to dances and concerts, and she sometimes bases her dresses on the concerts and dances she is going to.

“A lot of times, if I have a real favorite band that’s going to be there, then I’ll kind of base it off of one of their songs,” she said.

She gets all her Duct Tape supplies at Walmart and enjoys the nearly 20 colors available.

“I get really upset when I walk into a Walmart and they only have five different colors of Duct Tape, because the one by my house at home has almost every color of Duct Tape in a really cool setup.”

Her favorites are the neon colors Funky Flamingo, Atomic Yellow and Island Lime.

“They are just a lot of fun to work with, but I’ve been trying to use a lot more of the darker colors recently just because I haven’t been using them.”

Sarah said she is not only picky about the colors she uses but also the brand. She likes the name-brand tape best because it is “tackier” and stickier.

Sarah’s hobby has gotten her a lot of attention over the years. She has gotten bands at concerts to sign her dresses after they finish performing. She has been featured on the morning news alongside one of her dresses. She even had her dresses taken to the Duct Tape Festival in Avon.

“A lot of times, people just stare and then ask me what I’m wearing,” she added.

People also tend to wonder if these dresses are comfortable for Sarah to wear, and she said she doesn’t notice them being uncomfortable anymore.

“I’m just really used to wearing them in general. My shoulders and legs are usually uncovered, and it’s really only warm around the torso area.”

Sarah said strangers always think it’s really cool and then mention the Stuck at Prom Duck Brand Duck Tape Scholarship Contest to her, which she was a finalist two years ago for the prom dress she made.

On the days when she has no creativity, she feels she may run out of dress ideas, but ideas come to her in class and she tears three or four pages out of her notebook and begins sketching rapidly.

Sarah has an entire sketchbook of dresses she has envisioned making out of Duct Tape and hopes to make all of them at some point.

Not in fashion design?

When people see Sarah’s talents, they often wonder why she has not chosen to be a fashion design major.

“I’m not taking up design or merchandising because I make dresses for intrinsic reasons,” Sarah said. “I make them simply because I like them.”

She admits to being a shy person, but uses Duct Tape to express her personality and interests.

“I have this inner, outgoing part of me that comes out when I’m doing creative things,” she said. “Wearing duct tape is one of the ways that my more outgoing side comes out. I feel like I am a mostly normal person and that when I wear duct tape, my favorite part of me gets to be expressed externally.”

Sarah said she also feels that if she were to have to make clothes or design things for mass consumption, it would lose its meaning. For her, these dresses are truly about self-expression and personal enjoyment.

“All of the dresses and outfits I make are direct reflections of my interests and my style,” she added. “Making dresses is more of a hobby than a career choice in my point of view.”

This is specifically why Sarah chose her current major over anything in the fashion field.

“I guess you could say that I use Duct Tape to get attention, but it’s not just attention; I want to be remembered. I don’t want to be one of the millions of people who pass through life without doing something memorable and different,” Sarah said.

Contact academics reporter Suzi Starheim at [email protected].