Buying a space themed t-shirt with planets, swirling galaxies, or a NASA logo made to fit a five-year-old girl shouldn’t really be a tall order, but it was a daunting task for mom and entrepreneur Jaya Iyer. In 2015, she struggled to find clothing for her budding space cadet daughter in traditional retailers and noticed a huge hole in the market that is still reflective of society at large. The gender gap in STEM fields remains persistent, with women making up only 28 percent of the STEM workforce. That idea that science is for boys and not girls can begin as young as six, according to a 2021 study from Yale University. This outdated idea is still reflected with the very clothes available to them.

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Equipped with a stereotype smashing goal, years of experience with online retailer ThinkGeek, and a PhD in fashion merchandising from Iowa State University, Iyer launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to create clothing for children whose hobbies don’t fit in “gender traditional” boxes—think girls who love bugs and math or boys who like cats more than reptiles. Svaha USA was born and since then, the company has expanded into adult and more gender neutral clothing and has collaborated with NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg. Their latest team up has tech executive and STEAM ambassador Rhonda Vetere contributing to a line of clothing featuring circuits, binary code, and robots.

It’s all with the same goals–representing science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics (STEAM) fields, clothing inclusivity and adaptability, and keeping the wearer feeling good without too much effort.

“If I have to dry clean anything that I own, it sits in my closet, because I don’t want to deal with having to go to a dry cleaner, drop it off, pick it up, and it’s expensive. I didn’t want those fussy features of any clothing,” Iyer tells PopSci

Iyer has long used her customer base as her primary source of ideas, inspiration, and market research, even holding multiple design competitions for new STEAM inspired patterns and clothing because she believes that, “art has to be a part of every element of STEM.” Customers are also the ones who have helped make the brand more adaptive and inclusive. For those with sensory issues, the clothes come in knitted fabrics for extra softness and do not have itchy fasteners. She began to make front button shirts for new moms who are nursing. Some options do not have zippers so wearers can easily get dressed in the morning without the help of a partner or roommate. 

All Svaha dresses also come with an element that is noteworthy for pretty much anyone who identifies as female–pockets. “I do have customers who say that, even my two-year-old now realizes the importance of having pockets in her dresses,” says Iyer. “I also realized how important it is for people who want to carry an insulin pump to have these kinds of clothing.”

Psychology photo
NASA astronaut Karen Nyberg wearing a Svaha “Dinos in Space” shirt while presenting a TED Talk. CREDIT: Svaha USA.

While pockets in clothing may seem like a trivial bit of detail for some, wearing functional clothing can send an important message of inclusivity. Fashion psychologist, author, and instructor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York Dawnn Karen says the gender messaging on a lack of pockets can devalue the wearer and can contribute to decision fatigue, as needing to carry a bag for everyday items is just one more thing to worry about. 

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“We make more than 100 decisions a day. Think of someone in intense STEM jobs. If you want to focus on something, but have to think about a bag, it can make you feel unworthy or just add more stress,” Karen tells PopSci. “It’s more psychological than anything. A man with pockets built into his whole attire doesn’t have to think about that one less thing.”

In addition to this lack of functionality, women’s clothing also tends to be more painful, restrictive, and distracting to the wearer. This can interrupt focus and make it more difficult to move around in the workplace, according to research from Northwestern University’s Body and Media Lab. Anecdotal experiments with switching over to clothes made for men can reveal the lack of pain and mark inducing bits of clothing and simplifying dressing decisions, which can lead to more comfort and some overall happiness. 

To combat all of this, Karen promotes a movement she founded called dopamine dressing. Referencing the neurotransmitter nicknamed the “feel good hormone,” dopamine dressing encourages people of all gender identities to embrace the power of wearing clothes and accessories that help them feel happy. The concept arose at a time where Karen was having difficulty expressing herself verbally while recovering from sexual assault. Her experience studying counseling psychology in graduate school and as a part-time model led her to use clothing to work through feelings. 

“Mood illustration is dressing to perpetuate and optimize your current mood. It’s to maintain some type of emotional equilibrium and is what has been nicknamed dopamine dressing,” explains Karen.

The first key ingredient for Karen’s philosophy is color. Karen believes that color can help with this mood enhancement, even if it is a color that client’s of hers don’t believe will look good with their skin tones. While brighter colors do tend to elicit more of those happy feelings, it is highly individualized and some of Karen’s clients feel their best in all black. 

On the other side of the fashion psych coin is serotonin dressing, where people are encouraged to use clothing to sit with their negative feelings and actually pass through them instead of pushing them down or away. “Anything you suppress ends up coming back up. So you don’t want to suppress it,” says Karen. 

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The second crucial ingredient is one that she shares with Iyer and Svaha USA–the all important comfort factor. Both cited the COVID-19 pandemic as having a major effect on consumers realizing that texture, fabric, and comfort really do matter for clothing. This impact goes beyond the power of the pocketbook. 

“If you are wearing something that you feel extremely comfortable in, you are going to feel happy and good wearing them all day long,” says Iyer. “I feel like that happiness can then very easily move on to everything that you do in the day.”