Your Personal Guide to Adaptive Fashion History
There are two things that should come as no surprise: disabled people have always existed and people have always made clothes for disabled bodies.
But how did, what is now known as, "adaptive fashion" actually come to be? Who were the visionaries, rebels, and creatives that pushed the boundaries of designs to create what we see in niche markets today? And why the heck did it take so long for disabled fashion to find a place in the spotlight? Keep reading, because we’re going to tell you.
Because disabled bodies have always existed, it’s safe to assume that people across cultures and ethnicities have always created some version of adaptive wear. Since people usually hand-made their clothes at home, these adaptive garments likely addressed needs on a personal level. Garments were a product of close collaboration between the wearer and their mother, local seamstress, or town patternmaker.
However, as developments in the **Industrial Revolution** (1760-1840) changed the way society lived and thought, fashion became more standardized to quicken manufacturing. In this way, people were expected to conform their bodies to the standardized garments that were becoming more readily available—instead of clothing matching the wearer’s body and physical needs. Unfortunately, fast fashion and mass manufacturing had become the main ways modern clothing was produced, resulting in a cycle of disabled bodies being sidelined, forgotten, and left out of the style industry.
However, that didn’t stop people like Gladys Reed from troubleshooting dressing problems on their own. Reed was fed up with her hearing aid battery pack bag (which she had to carry around) constantly slipping off her shoulder. With a little work, she created a belt with hip pockets that would carry the instrument and even took the designs one step further by later developing a bra with pocket storage.
Adaptive is Totally Vintage: 1950s-1970s
While you might think the 1950’s idea of “adaptive features” was all about freeing the wearer to navigate stairs with martinis and canapés in both hands, you might be surprised to learn that this era held a disabled-focused collaboration of nearly 30% of top USA designers. Between 1955 and 1976, these designers created garments for disabled bodies under what was referred to as the Functional Fashions Line. Notable among them was Helen Cookman (whose own disability was hearing loss) who lead the movement, designed an entire sample collection, and co-authored a book, Functional Fashions for the Physically Handicapped.
[Image Description: A book cover with torn edges, showing blocky drawings of dresses and suits in red textures. An old font reads “Functional Fashions for the Physically Handicapped,’]
[Image Description: Black and white pages from the book. It shows women and men modeling the garments, with small text blocks beside their images, calling out the features. In the photos, you can see adaptive dressing features such as belts with pockets and side opening closures.]
The cultural climate of a post-war society contributed to this. People returning from war with injuries and amputations were expected to go on with productive, normal lives and required the clothing to do so.
What’s surprising is that many of Cookman’s innovations look like the ones you see today. Details such as side-opening trousers, shorter cuts, and easy-to-reach pockets were central to her pieces. In the suits, there were hidden adaptive elements such as reinforced underarms to bear the wear and tear of crutches, backless vests, and clip-on ties. (You might even say accessible design is actually pretty simple....lookin’ at you, H and M.)
[Image Description: A technical drawing in black and white of a pant. The design shows multiple ideas for accessible features, like a zipper at the cuff, or a side opening at the hip. The drawing is covered with measurements and hand-written notes.]
Ok, full stop—you might be asking yourself, what happened? Adaptive designs were on a roll in the 1950s, so why did it take so long to get cute options up until now? Unfortunately, after Cookman and her fellow collaborators passed, the movement fell to the wayside.
**Also, let’s be real about one thing:** The above designs were most likely only available to a select group of disabled people (ie. white, thin, upper class, USA citizens). BIPOC disabled people, Disabled people in other countries, or disabled people with lower income or larger bodies were still left with sparse options.
Adaptive Clothing Goes Mainstream:
It was finally in the 1980s that society “rediscovered” adaptive design, as more caretakers began demanding easy-dressing garments. And unlike the 80’s mullet, we’re here for it. With more social attention, manufacturers began designing and selling specific garments with disabled needs in mind. However, in true 80’s fashion, they got the concept but missed the mark on style. Many of these designs are read as the medical or geriatric garments we see today. A true disabled fashion statement, unfortunately, had a little longer to go.
Modern Day Fashion:
It wasn’t until 2014 when model and psychologist Danielle Sheypuk turned heads by rocking her wheelchair look down the runways of New York Fashion Week. From there, accessible fashion began to take on a new life, with actress Selma Blair boldly announcing her MS diagnosis and a litany of fellow actors coming forward with disabilities such as ADHD and Dyslexia.
Mindy Scheier founded Runway of Dreams after struggling to find dressing options for her young son, and big brands such as Tommy Hilfiger began offering more trend-focused options.
In the last 3 years, adaptive fashion and disability representation has finally grown a foothold in the industry, as people continue to challenge what fashion is, and who it belongs to. Collaborations, such as Asos and Paralympic hopeful Chloe Ball-Hopkins.
And the best part? The history (or should we say, *her*story) is still being written! We believe the best is yet to come, with brands finally giving the disabled community the attention and respect we deserve.
So what part will you play in this historical fashion movement?
Don’t be afraid to experiment with your style, to ask companies for the accessibility that you need. And most importantly, don’t be hesitant to live your life as the GORGEOUS fashion icon you already are.
[Image Description: A shot from the Liberare photoshoot. A group of young women with a range of different disabilities look into the camera. They are on a white bed with a soft morning glow of light falling on them. They look relaxed, confident, and beautiful.]
Feeling inspired to refresh your closet? Start with the basics and treat yourself to some nice lingerie. The new line from Liberare features all the adaptive bells and whistles for no-fuss dressing without compromising for style.
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Chipstone.org, Exhibit: Functional Fashions, March 23, 2019 - April 1, 2020
The Journal of Dress History, Volume 2, Issue 1, Spring 2018
POPSUGAR, Why Aren't More Fashion Brands Designing Adaptive Clothing?, Natasha Marsh, 2021