Adaptive Clothing: Where Function and Fashion Meet

“How do you get dressed in the morning?” That’s the first thing Parsons Assistant Professor of Fashion Grace Jun asks her clients.

Familiarity with routines is essential to how Jun creates customized clothing for her clients, including people who have autism or Parkinson’s disease.

“Some people eat breakfast first; others go straight to their wardrobe,” said Jun, who is the executive director at the Open Style Lab, a New York City nonprofit that is dedicated to making style accessible to people of all abilities since 2015. “It’s not something we think about a lot, but it’s a hugely intimate part of who somebody is.”

Constructed for people with physical disabilities or neurological disorders, adaptive clothing is any apparel designed to improve quality of life while maintaining the role of fashion in self-expression and confidence.

Specialized modifications to clothing are an emerging movement in the fashion industry, designed with the help of occupational therapists (OTs) for clients in search of functional, fashionable choices.

“We aren’t just redesigning clothing,” Jun said. “We’re thinking about where it’s really purposeful in someone’s environment.”

What Is Adaptive Clothing?

“Adaptive clothing is clothing designed to meet the needs of individuals with physical, cognitive, or sensory disabilities,” said Dr. Grace Kim, assistant professor in the online Doctor of Occupational Therapy program at NYU Steinhardt. The apparel industry has historically offered limited options for individuals with disabilities. Traditional adaptive clothing felt very clinical, typically focusing solely on function. A clunky black shoe with Velcro straps, elastic pants in beige polyester, and an oversized T-shirt may have been the best clothing options available for someone with limited dexterity and arm function.

Fortunately, the fashion industry recognizes the need to include people with various disabilities in their design planning. Major retailers have recently introduced adaptive clothing lines, which vastly increase fashion options for clients.

The current sea change in adaptive clothing is an opportunity to merge fashion, comfort, function, and creativity. “Above all else, the point is to make it easier to get dressed, stay comfortable, and feel great about what you’re wearing, regardless of your abilities,” according to Kim.

Since 2017, Open Style Lab (OSL) has partnered with The New School Parsons School of Design to offer a 10-week summer program for “designers, engineers, and occupational therapists in a client-centric design process with people with disabilities,” Jun said. The program exemplifies interdisciplinary efforts from occupational therapists and designers to meet the demand for accessible, fashionable apparel.

“When we think of clothing as a second skin, we have to consider that the body isn’t static — it’s dynamic, and it’s constantly changing,” Jun said. “We have to address that with clothing, with accessories, and with wearable technology.”

Photos: At top, 2017 Open Style Lab design fellows met with Chris O’Donoghue, a retired television reporter and power wheelchair user, to discuss his preferences for the style and function of a tailored suit jacket at Parsons Making Center. Above, 2017 fellows Taeyeon Kim (Parsons MFA ’18), Abi Lierheimer (SCAD ’17), and Neya John (OTR/L, D’Youville College ’16) are shown with O’Donoghue. 

The Benefits of Adaptive Clothing

Adaptive clothing, according to Kim and Jun, is both a solution to a functional problem as well as an opportunity to enhance people’s relationships with their social and physical surroundings. An accessible wardrobe is specifically designed to provide the following benefits for people with disabilities:

Independence

Many clients have a family member or caregiver who helps them get dressed, but adaptive clothing reduces the need for caregiver support because it requires fewer fine motor skills. “If you struggle with dressing because of dexterity or paralysis, clothing should never be a barrier to having a greater quality of life,” Jun said.

Participation

People with neurological disorders may experience hypersensitivity to irritating fabrics and tailoring, which can interfere with someone’s ability to participate in meaningful tasks or activities. “Children with autism spectrum disorder often have difficulty concentrating in class or after-school activities, which is exacerbated by distracting tags or zippers,” Kim said. Adaptive clothing eliminates these diversions and maximizes comfort for a child, which is critical for facilitating engagement in daily activities.

Inclusion

Most clothes are designed to look and fit best while the wearer is standing, which is a challenge for people with low mobility. “The little black dress doesn’t really exist for someone who uses a wheelchair,” Kim said. Eveningwear and waterproof gear are just two kinds of apparel that aren’t tailored to people who rely on mobility devices, crutches, and catheters. According to Kim, “Rain shouldn’t stop you from living your life.”

Confidence

Clothing allows people to express themselves creatively, an aspect of fashion that should be kept in mind when designing for all abilities. “At the end of the day, we all want the same thing out of a wardrobe: to feel good in what we’re wearing, physically and mentally,” Kim said.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

So far, scaling inclusivity has been challenging, though not impossible, according to Jun, because much of adaptive clothing has to be customized for clients. Each bespoke piece is difficult to replicate, which means maintaining a high price point for commissioned items.

Retailers including Tommy Hilfiger, Target, and Zappos have recently entered the adaptive clothing market with collections that feature shirts without tags, pants without zippers, and shoes without laces, all executed with trendy colors, details, and fabrics. Kim said she hopes that inclusivity becomes a pervasive consideration in the fashion industry.

“Up until this point, people with disabilities have been largely ignored by designers,” she said. “We have to realize that they just want the same things as able-bodied people.”

The rise of the Maker Education Movement offers an opportunity for designers, OTs, and even clients to create their own designs through open-source materials. The more that innovative pieces are shared, both in person and online, the greater the odds of people finding clothing that works for them.

How OTs Add Value to the Design Industry

While occupational therapists don’t need prior design experience to help create adaptive clothing, Kim said it’s helpful to understand some of the basic fundamental characteristics of fabrics and design issues pertaining to fit as someone changes body positions or has limitations in range of motion. However, OTs’ unique contribution to the team is their knowledge and understanding of the motor, sensory, cognitive, and emotional challenges that someone with a disability experiences. “Both sides have a lot to learn about each other, which is why the teamwork is so important,” she said.

Jun said that for OTs, learning design is less about getting a traditional fashion education and more about embracing different skill sets that can address clients’ needs, like sewing or illustrating.

“The need for fundamental experience and perspective as an occupational therapist is especially important when working with designers,” Jun said. “When working with a team, OTs tend to be the anchor of the group because they have the most knowledge and experience with approaching someone with a disability.”

Both Kim and Jun hope occupational therapists continue to share client-centered perspectives for greater health outcomes.

“We’ve realized that OTs have been crafting and making adjustments to their clients’ clothing for a long time already,” Jun said. “Now that these industries have collided, there’s an opportunity to look at things together.”

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Citation for this content: NYU Steinhardt’s online Doctor of Occupational Therapy program.