Beyond FunctionalUnraveling the Long Line of Disability Fashion

An illustration of a book with images of disabled people through history wearing clothing adapted and made for the disabled.

Illustration by Ananya Rao-Middleton

“To be well dressed is to feel well dressed.”—Helen Cookman

There are no “firsts” in disability fashion, and there can’t be a future for disability fashion without acknowledging its lineage of disabled creators. People have always made clothes for disabled bodies. Whenever possible, we disabled people have modified garments and assistive devices to fit our bodies for style, comfort, and function. In 1948, for example, a British woman named Gladys Reed was frustrated with her body-worn hearing aid, which placed separate battery packs in a “handbag container” worn over her shoulder. Because the handbag regularly slipped off Reed’s shoulder, she decided to create a better solution: a belt with hip pockets for carrying her instrument and batteries. Her later designs—including bra pockets and linen bags fastened to a suspender belt—improved on the carrier. She even shared her design patterns for others to replicate. Reed’s story fits within a lineage of stories about disabled people who devise their own solutions because mainstream brands don’t often meet our needs. 

Designer Helen Cookman also altered her own clothing to accommodate her hearing aid by sewing the battery packs into the waistbands of her skirts and pants. Credited for popularizing the Chesterfield coat in the ’30s, Cookman was known for incorporating masculine styles into womenswear and designing post–World War II industrial uniforms. In 1955, New York Times style editor Virginia Pope recommended her for a position at New York University’s Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, researching the market potential of adaptable clothing. At the institute, Cookman developed a sample collection of “Functional Fashions”: 17 items created to help disabled people dress themselves independently and tested for “function, utility, and fabric choice.” The garments featured designs such as blouse pleats, double-fabric under arms (to withstand pressure from crutches), Velcro fastening, and wide zippers. Cookman even designed a “wrap-around dress”—nearly 15 years before Diane von Furstenberg’s iconic design—and patented her trouser modification with full-length side seam zippers.

When the collection debuted in 1959, more than 35,000 people and organizations rushed to place orders. In response to the demand for ready-to-wear apparel, Cookman and Pope established the nonprofit Clothing Research and Development Foundation. The foundation provided space for Cookman to research newer designs, some of which are featured in her coauthored book, Functional Fashions for the Physically Handicapped, to encourage other designers and disabled makers to create their own clothing. In a 2019 article for the Milwaukee Art Museum, Natalie Wright, a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wrote that Cookman’s Functional Fashions were popular because of the postwar American notion of “independence that expected citizens to be self-reliant while performing productive, gender-normative roles in the labor force and at home.” These issues became particularly relevant for the large swath of injured and disabled soldiers who returned from World War II and for rising numbers of people disabled by polio, all facing a largely inaccessible society.

Recognizing the commercial potential of Cookman’s designs, New York designers such as Levi’s, Lacoste, and Sears incorporated Functional Fashions into their runway collections. Though Cookman worked on Functional Fashions until her death in 1973, she never secured a mass-market distribution deal. Thus, few material remnants of this history remain. While many disabled people likely embraced Cookman’s zeal for DIY, the runway pieces and brand collaborations are missing or lost in the archives and have yet to be found. Indeed, in 2019 Natalie Wright worked with disabled-design advocate Liz Jackson to track down the collection within Levi’s archives. Upon urgings from Wright and Jackson, Levi’s historian Tracey Panek located a pair of jeans from the company’s Functional Fashions collaboration with Cookman. For Jackson, and Wright especially, this was deeply validating and beneficial to their research because when Cookman and Pope died, the Functional Fashions line nearly died with them.

At the time, Functional Fashions was one of several companies offering stylish clothing for disabled people. Beginning in the ’60s, home economics textbooks, rehabilitation manuals, and newsletters for disabled homemakers presented suggestions for adapting store-bought clothing and knitting accessible apparel. Chicago-based designer Judy Falk’s “adaptive clothing” was featured in the Sears Home HealthCare catalog. The U.S. Department of Agriculture established a research service to investigate clothing preferences for disabled women, especially those with arthritis, muscular dystrophy, and poliomyelitis. At the same institute where Cookman worked, disabled designer Mrs. Van Davis Odell created Fashion-Able in the early ’60s, a line of accessible garments and accessories for women—likely built on the work of Functional Fashions. Among the most notable products were a bra with Velcro closures and a purse designed to fit on the handrest of a T-shaped cane. Odell eventually sold the business in 1971 after it grew too large for her to manage. 

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As Cookman’s Functional Fashions and Odell’s Fashion-Able have been forgotten and gone uncredited in fashion history, “Adaptive clothing” has emerged in their stead: mass-produced garments for disabled people, created by companies promoting disability as inspiration. Adaptive clothing became a marketable trend in 2016 when the Runway of Dreams Foundation partnered with Tommy Hilfiger to create a 22-piece collection of adjustable clothing that encouraged disabled children to dress themselves. Fashion designer Mindy Scheier, who established the foundation, was motivated “to empower people with disabilities through adaptive clothing” after her son Oliver’s muscular dystrophy made it challenging for him to manage buttons and zippers on his clothing. In a Time op-ed that corresponded with the Tommy Hilfiger launch, Scheier stated that the goal of Runway of Dreams was to create an “inspiring movement toward inclusivity in the fashion industry.”

Target, Nike, and Zappos quickly followed suit with their own adaptive apparel, each motivated by a specific moment that served as inspiration for the line. For Zappos, it was a customer service call that “made a lasting impression on our employee.” For Nike, it was a letter from teenager Matthew Walzer who has cerebral palsy, which stirred CEO Mark Parker. The internal design team for Target’s Cat & Jack line included the mother of an autistic child, who was inspired to solve the problem of restrictive garments and sensory-unfriendly fabrics. By inaccurately framing these strategic corporate decisions as tales of epiphany, brands are promoting their products as originals, firsts, and innovations, thereby erasing all that existed before them. In many ways, these decisions reflect what historians Lee Vinsel and Andrew L. Russell describe in their 2020 book, The Innovation Delusion: How Our Obsession with the New Has Disrupted the Work That Matters Most, as “innovation speak,” which favors “stories of individual genius to the more complex reality” of how things actually emerge. That is, brands tend to focus more on the language of innovation, rather than actual innovation. A brand cannot claim to be the “first” at something without erasing past contributions. As scholar Max Liboiron suggests, “Firsting is about the power to discard.” Claiming to be the “first” is a proclamation of power deeply rooted in colonialism and capitalism.

A new generation of disabled creators is positioning their fashion as wearable art designed to honor their communities

We observe this pattern in disability fashion, where claiming to be the first—just as Scheier did when she said that the Runway of Dreams and Hilfiger collab was the first “to bring adaptive mainstream clothing directly to consumers”—obscures the legacy of designers such as Reed, Cookman, Odell, and others. The firsting phenomenon is especially striking when looking at the creation of clear face masks. In response to public health mandates, more than a dozen non-disabled people claimed to have invented the first clear mask to make it easier for deaf people to communicate during the pandemic. No credit was given to Anne McIntosh, PhD, a deaf professor who fought for years to bring her “transparent surgical mask” to market. We’re not assuming that McIntosh was the first to develop this mask, but there is cause for caution here. As with Cookman, McIntosh is a successful deaf woman whose story was erased by the so-called innovations of others. 

But things are shifting. A new generation of disabled creators is positioning their fashion as wearable art designed to honor their communities, rather than framing their work as a solution or fix. Several creations launched in 2020 and early 2021: An ear jewelry collaboration between Chella Man and Private Policy shifted the gaze so that objects historically made to be discreet are now actually drawing attention to the ear and to deafness. Sandie Yi of Crip Couture devised a face mask titled “One of Us,” made from material printed with a graphic pattern of Yi’s hands, which she refers to as her “two great hands.” Yi’s design reflected how “the pandemic has uncovered biases around who is deserving of lifesaving treatment.” Sky Cubacub has designed customizable face masks with 11 different attachment styles that embody the brilliant aesthetic of Cubacub’s company Rebirth Garments and uphold their mission “to resist society’s desire to render us invisible.” By framing these objects within stories of emergence rather than innovation, we gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of disabled creators and the community their work centers. Emergence offers an alternative to erasure—whether that erasure happens as a result of discreteness, eradication, or invisibility. Through this new lens we can begin to imagine a future in which disability fashion will liberate those who have been erased from design, from mainstream disability narratives, and even from within disability communities.

Liz Jackson, a white person with short brown hair and clear plastic glasses, smiles brightly at the camera
by Liz Jackson
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Liz Jackson is a disabled advocate and designer and a founding member of The Disabled List, a disability-led design consultancy and self-advocacy organization.

by Jaipreet Virdi
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Jaipreet Virdi is a disability historian and scholar-activist at the University of Delaware and the author of Hearing Happiness: Deafness Cures in History.