The fashion industry is infamously fixated on able-bodies and youth, and does not typically cater to different age groups, body types and cognitive/physical requirements. Adaptive clothing is different. It is designed with disabled people and older adults in mind, to enable wearers to go about their daily lives without their clothing obstructing or interrupting them.
Despite being the largest minority group globally (approximately 15% of the world’s population), disabled people are consistently excluded from participating in the fashion industry and enjoying clothing. With this in mind, “adaptivewear” is designed to be inclusive and aims to benefit a wide variety of wearers, as well as addressing specific individual needs.
Inclusive design starts with fixing the problem for one person and then extending this solution to as many other people as possible. For example, Amazon’s Alexa was originally designed to be used by people who are visually impaired and now is widely used by a broad section of society, love it or hate it.
Inclusive design starts with fixing the problem for one person and then extending this solution to as many other people as possible.
Adaptive clothing is not only designed to prevent ‘normal’ garments from impeding users but is also developed to assist wearers with tasks that they are unable to, or struggle to, perform without the correct gear.
I’ve recently joined the POP team as a RA/PM and my own practice is preoccupied by questions of inclusive or human-centred design. I create adaptive clothing for people of all ages and abilities. My background is in menswear design, and I specialise in bespoke alterations and ergonomic construction. These techniques place function as a priority, and this translates well in adaptive clothing. I am currently non-disabled, and therefore always collaborate and co-design with disabled people. This involves extensive teamwork throughout the design process, from initial research to material considerations and wear-testing.
Together we co-create the problem and co-create the solution.
Who is responsible for care, and who is being cared for?
Clothing that addresses disability and medical care is frequent throughout the patent archive. The inventions vary however, in some their purpose is immediately obvious and in other’s the intentions are disguised. In most cases, it is clear what the garment is addressing, and the inventors describe designing for ‘invalid’s’ or ‘patients’ specifically. Thankfully, the language that surrounds disability has changed over the last 200 years. In fact, when we searched for keywords in the A41 ‘wearing apparel’ category, the word “access” appeared 12,758 times, “disabled” appeared 1,455 times, but “adaptivewear” was nowhere to be seen!
The relationship between adaptive clothing and citizenship is intrinsically linked, requiring us to question themes of inclusion, exclusion, care and belonging from multiple perspectives. Who is responsible for care, and who is being cared for? Who is allowed to participate as an ‘active’ citizen and contribute to society?
In the following, I explore some key examples of adaptive clothing in the patent archive that range from 1867 in the USA to France in 2015.
Access & Fastenings
One of the fundamental requirements of adaptive clothing is access. For many disabled people, the process of dressing yourself can be difficult. Clothing that has multiple entry points can enable easier dressing and undressing by removing the need for stretching or physical strain.
An early example of this design choreography is the “One-Piece Garment” patented by H. E. Larson in 1967. The inventor devised a fully open dress that is wrapped around the wearer from front to back from a reclining, sitting or standing position. This eliminates the need to extend the wearers arms above their head.
Access in adaptive clothing can also refer to a requirement to access specific areas of a wearer’s body for medical reasons. For example, wearers may need extra room in a sleeve or trouser leg to accommodate for a prosthesis (an artificial body part).
In contrast to the previous patent, which was designed as one-piece, the “Invalid’s Robe” from 1891 was intended to be constructed from multiple different sections of fabric. This modular garment was designed to provide easier access to different parts of the wearer’s body, without the difficulty of removing an entire piece of clothing. The inventor describes the ability to substitute elements of the garment with fresh pieces of fabric, which “could be accomplished with but little trouble and disadvantage to the patient.” This highlights an instance in the patent archive where the patient’s well-being is explicitly considered a priority.
One significant barrier for disabled people and older adults when dressing and undressing are the fastenings on their clothing. For example, small buttons may be to too fiddly for people with low dexterity, and long ties or cords can get caught in wheelchair mechanisms.
Australian inventor Rhonda Newton attempted to resolve this issue through a fastening guidance system, patented in 2006. Newton designed a variety of fastening configurations, that use different shapes and textures to pair buttons to the complimentary buttonhole. By leveraging wearers’ tactile senses, this invention can quicken the dressing process, and gives agency to the wearer, rather than having to rely on somebody else for assistance.
Personal agency and dignity are key considerations of adaptive design. Isaac Stratton’s “Pantaloon Fastening” is intended to enable “aged and infirm” men to “serve themselves in calls of nature without difficulty.” This elastic lower front fly features eyelets (small round holes) and a cord that permits convenient access without the need for multiple awkward closures.
Sports & Events
What we wear allows us to perform different actions. Whether it’s through aesthetic or function, adaptive clothing is designed to allow disabled people to participate in social life and not be excluded from various activities. The patent archive has some brilliant examples of this inclusionary action from around the world. For example, in 2001, James M Cummins patented a “Mitten for Securing a Handicapped Person’s Hand to a Ski Pole” in Canada.
More than a decade later, Dianne Rothhammer Sheetz patented a “Wraparound Swimsuit” in Portugal to allow people of any age or ability to easily change in and out of a one-piece swimsuit by altering the access points to a folding motion. Inventions like these are examples of the empowering nature of inclusive design to partake in sporting activities and increase independence.
Some of the best inventions are seamless, almost working invisibly. A lot of adaptive design is intended to be hidden, so that the clothing appears ‘normal’. These concealed alterations can allow disabled people to act as everyday citizens, without their impairment being immediately visible. The patent for a “Necktie Fastener” from 1896 features a secret clasp, for easy manipulation. Hidden behind the main tie knot, it allows the wearer to dress neatly and ‘fit in’, in a formal context.
However, adaptive clothing doesn’t have to be subtle or attempt to mask disabilities but can instead bring attention to the wearer and not the impairment. In 2015, a French patent for a “Ceremonial Garment” illustrates a frock for events requiring “high-fashion dress”. It features an interchangeable adaptation of the chair itself to conceal the lower section of a wheelchair. This combination of engineering and fashion design distracts from the wheelchair and instead draws attention to the wearer. Literally enlarging the garment to take up and claim space with dress.
Going forward, we are looking to dissect the word ‘adaptive’, what it means in the context of clothing design and how it is used in the patent archive. We aim to find out which bodies have been invented for and by whom? Whose functional or aesthetic needs have been catered to, and who has been left out?
Clothing has the potential to both enable and disable people.
Clothing is our body’s most immediate and intimate environment. It has the potential to both enable and disable people. People are shaped by society and the built environment, including what we wear. Many inventors in the dataset have aligned with the social model of disability, which focuses on disabling environments rather than individual differences. This theory argues that people are restricted by an automatically hostile world, not by their impairment directly. People are disabled, they don’t have disabilities. Inventors have used adaptive clothing innovations as tools to shift the responsibility away from the disabled individual, to a society that disables us.
Pat. 3,339,209. Hester E. Larson, State of Utah, USA, ‘One-Piece Garment’, 5 September 1967. Accessed from the European Patent Office (EPO) Espacenet www.epo.org
Pat. 459,106. Lizzie H. Fifield, State of New Hampshire, USA, ‘Invalid’s Robe’, 8 September, 1891. Accessed from the EPO Espacenet www.epo.org
Pat. 100,224. Rhonda M. Newton, Brisbane, Australia, ‘A Garment’, 27 April 2006. Accessed from the EPO Espacenet www.epo.org
Pat. 70,645. Isaac Stratton, State of New Hampshire, USA ‘Pantaloon Fastening’, 5 November, 1867. Accessed from the EPO Espacenet www.epo.org
Pat. 3,738,674. James M. Cummin, Canada. ‘Mitten for Securing a Handicapped Person’s Hand to a Ski Pole’, 29 January, 2001. Accessed from the EPO Espacenet www.epo.org
Pat. 1,887,895. Dianne Rothhammer Sheetz, Portugal, ‘Wraparound Swimsuit and its Use’. 3 April 2012, Accessed from the EPO Espacenet www.epo.org
Pat. 573,733. William W. Waterbury, State of Alabama, USA, ‘Necktie-Fastener’. 22 December 1896, Accessed from the EPO Espacenet www.epo.org
Pat. 3,010,872. Brifaut-Chebi Romain, France, ‘Ceremonial Garment for a Physically Disabled Woman in an Adapted Wheelchair’. 27 March 2015, Accessed from the EPO Espacenet www.epo.org
Hughes, C. 2020. How Alexa Can Change the Life of a Disabled Person. Ability Net – https://abilitynet.org.uk/news-blogs/how-alexa-can-change-life-disabled-person
Pullin, G. 2009. Design Meets Disability, Cambridge: The MIT Press
World Health Organization 2011. World Report on Disability – https://www.who.int/teams/noncommunicable-diseases/disability-and-rehabilitation/world-report-on-disability