20th and 21st Century Design Art Collection

Functional Fashions

The mistaken belief that there is no history of clothing designs for disabled users has had a number of repercussions.

Installation view, “Functional Fashions,” Milwaukee Art Musuem, 2019.

*Within the disability community today, some may prefer identity-first language (e.g., “disabled person”), or person-first language (e.g., “person with a disability”). Because the curators do not know the preferences of the historical subjects in the “Functional Fashions” display, they chose to use identity-first language based on the recommendations of collaborators.

The mistaken belief that there is no history of clothing designs for disabled users has had a number of repercussions. Among them: nearly all designers treat their own iterations as inaugural, there has been a dearth of innovation as designs are continuously repeated, and disability-led innovation is written out of the historical record [1]. Not only is there a long history of clothing designed by and for disabled persons, but in some cases it sets a higher standard than the efforts that followed. “Functional Fashions,” a display in the 20th- and 21st-Century Design Galleries at the Milwaukee Art Museum, introduces the largest collaborative clothing line for disabled persons in American history.

Between 1955 and 1976, nearly thirty of the United States’ top clothing designers created garments to fit disabled bodies under the Functional Fashions line. Brands ranged from high-end sportswear to everyday labels. Leading the charge was designer Helen Cookman, whose own disability was hearing loss. During a research residency with Dr. Howard Rusk at New York University’s Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Cookman recognized a need and a business opportunity: beautiful clothes with features for the millions of Americans living with disabilities. At the Institute, Cookman co-authored Functional Fashions for the Physically Handicapped and developed a sample collection [2]. With New York Times Style Editor Virginia Pope, she then created the Clothing Research and Development Foundation to run Functional Fashions. The clothing line included Cookman’s own collection, garments by other designers with Cookman’s innovative features, and outfits already deemed “functional.” The line ended when Cookman and Pope passed away and has since been largely forgotten.

During World War II, Dr. Howard Rusk noticed that his patients were healed, but unable to work. In response, he developed rigorous rehabilitation programs to help veterans adopt a “do-it-yourself” and “self-help” mentality to productivity [3]. Overcoming barriers of the nondisabled built environment, he believed, would improve a patient’s physical and psychological wellbeing. Rusk applied these same methods when treating disabled civilians at New York University’s Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, creating veritable obstacle courses for the body and mind. At the Institute’s “self-help shop,” occupational therapist Muriel Zimmerman encouraged patients to design their own gadgets for everyday tasks. The strict postwar definition of independence positioned these devices as replacements for caregiving, and the ability to dress and undress oneself was one of the most important markers of autonomy.

Self-help gadgets illustrated in Howard Rusk and Eugene Taylor’s publication Living With A Disability (1953).

The pilot Functional Fashions line that Helen Cookman developed with Muriel Zimmerman was part of a series of design initiatives at the Institute that deviated from self-help devices in that they were accessible from the outset. Cookman’s ensembles were not meant to test a disabled user’s ingenuity with required adaptations. Instead, Cookman believed that psychological rehabilitation would derive from beautiful, “functional,” clothing. Cookman’s own hearing loss informed the designs she created at the Institute, having constructed extra pockets on her famed coats to fit the large batteries that powered her hearing aids. Together Cookman and Zimmerman studied the clothing requirements and desires of patients at the Institute, using this data to conceive of solutions such as shorter suit jackets to eliminate the discomfort that longer jackets often cause wheelchair users, “action pleats” on women’s jackets to allow for easier arm movement, and reinforced underarms for crutch users [4]. The public response to the line was overwhelming. Thousands of Americans wrote in to inquire about purchasing options, prompting Cookman to create the Clothing Research and Development Foundation with the mission of encouraging other designers to incorporate her novel construction features into their own lines [5]. Over the span of twenty years, Functional Fashions collaborators included designers of womenswear, menswear, and childrenswear ranging from Pauline Trigère to Joseph Love.

Installation view, “Functional Fashions,” Milwaukee Art Musuem, 2019.

Prior to the Functional Fashions line, consumers seeking clothing that fit their disabled bodies had to make or alter their own garments (work that often fell to women), or search medical device supply stores. Functional Fashions made it possible for style-conscious disabled consumers to find beautiful, ready-to-wear clothing that met their needs for the first time.

Vera Maxwell remained the longest collaborator, adding Functional Fashions elements to her garments for ten years. Indeed, one of her best-known creations, the Speed Suit, was created for disabled bodies. Made with a lycra-knit top, it slips over the head with no fastenings, perfect for “the woman who wants to dress quickly” or “anyone whose fingers are crippled with arthritis” [6]. Maxwell also contributed one of the most luxurious Functional Fashions creations, her Rugby Suit, a tweed ensemble lined with seal fur, which had a matching lap robe for wheelchair users. Its closures made use of a new invention, “pressure tape,” recognized more widely today by its brand name Velcro®.

Vera Maxwell, Rugby Suit, Indianapolis Star, Aug 4, 1963.

The Functional Fashions line also highlighted pieces that were not specifically designed for disabled bodies but met this need in novel ways. Most notable were American sportswear pioneer Bonnie Cashin’s iconic designs, including her signature ponchos and her well-known Dog Leash skirt. Her goal was radical for the era: to design high style unrestrictive clothing for modern women [7]. Cashin designed this skirt, which first appeared in Harper’s Bazaar in 1957, for a single purpose — to quickly hitch up her skirt with the attached industrial hardware as a way of navigating her country home stairs with martinis and canapés occupying both hands. Functional Fashions later republished it as a sophisticated solution for women with limited mobility.

Left to right: Bonnie Cashin, Dog Leash skirt ensemble, 1957 (courtesy of The Bonnie Cashin Archive, Stephanie Lake Collection); Florence Eiseman, Dress, 1963; and Vera Maxwell, Speed Suit, 1976. 
Bonnie Cashin, Dog Leash skirt ensemble, 1957. Courtesy of The Bonnie Cashin Archive, Stephanie Lake Collection.

Milwaukee-native Florence Eiseman’s A-line shapes and high-quality fabrics made her a natural Functional Fashions ally — so much so that the Milwaukee Sentinel reported Helen Cookman visiting Wisconsin in 1963 to show the fruits of their collaboration [8]. In this period, polio was drawing huge amounts of attention to children’s disability. The disease and its disabling effects were on the rise, and since rehabilitation treatments considered dressing oneself a sign of normative development, parents hoped that playful designs would encourage their children to practice this task. Eiseman’s designs included large, simple shoulder buttons on dresses (which allowed them to easily slip on and off) and trousers with wider pant legs to accommodate braces. At the same time that polio was constructed as a white middle-class disease that took away innocence, Eiseman was marketing a postwar vision of childhood that was whimsical and characterized by “wondrous innocence” [9].

Helen Cookman’s last Functional Fashions collaboration was perhaps her biggest. In 1975, the Levi’s® Letter magazine announced that Levi’s® jeans would produce a pair of mail-order flares [10]. The design was based on Cookman’s patented Trousers for a Handicapped Person, which featured zippers down the length of both legs and a belt that kept the front in place while the back unzipped for ease when using the bathroom. Cookman passed away two years prior to this significant release.

Left to right: Helen Cookman, Trousers for a Handicapped Person patent, 1960; Levi’s® Letter magazine, 1975. 

In the postwar era, the country held a notion of independence that expected citizens to be self-reliant while performing productive, gender-normative roles in the labor force and at home. The Functional Fashions line was meant to help disabled users meet the mental and physical requirements of this ideal. Of course, many disabled persons could not. Yet it was an early effort to create accessible, beautiful garments, and until the Functional Fashions collections are compiled and interpreted, it will likely remain the largest.

You can see the “Functional Fashions” display in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s 20th- and 21st-Design Galleries now through early 2020, and learn more about the intersections of disability and design at the Museum’s upcoming  program, “In Conversation: Design and Disability.” This discussion between professor Bess Williamson, disability advocate Liz Jackson, and the author will be held in the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Lubar Auditorium on Thursday, May 16 at 6:15pm.

Natalie Wright is the Charles Hummel Curatorial Fellow at The Chipstone Foundation.

[1] Liz Jackson, “We Are The Original Life Hackers,” New York Times, May 30, 2018.

[2] Helen Cookman and Muriel E. Zimmerman, Functional Fashions for the Physically Handicapped (New York: Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, 1961).

[3] Bess Williamson, Accessible America: A History of Disability and Design (New York: New York University Press, 2019), 43-68.

[4] Howard Rusk and Eugene Taylor, “Functional Fashions for the Physically Handicapped,” Journal of The American Medical Association 169 (1959): 1598-1600.

[5] Meta Blackwell, “New Functional Styles Solve Physical Problems,” San Bernardino Sun, April 19, 1964.

[6] Betty Ommerman, “Fashionable Clothes For Handicapped,” Central New Jersey Home News, August 12, 1976.

[7] Stephanie Lake, Bonnie Cashin: Chic Is Where You Find It (New York: Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 2016), 66.

[8] Vivian Kawatzky, “Functional Fashions Designed Without Tears,” Milwaukee Sentinel, October 14, 1963

[9] Sarah Carter, “Designing the Postwar Child,” in Florence Eiseman: Designing Childhood for the American Century (Museum of Wisconsin Art, 2017), 18.

[10] “Functional Jeans Will Help The Handicapped,” Levi’s Letter (Levi Strauss & Co., June, 1975). 

One reply on “Functional Fashions”

What an interesting exhibition! Hope more museums will host such a fashion exhibition, instead of opting for the usual topics. Thanks for highlighting this and sorry I won’t be able to visit.

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