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One Size Doesn’t Fit All: Accessible Fashion

Last updated on April 30, 2020

We all know that “one size fits all” is an urban legend. Those “standard” garments either drown us or make us feel bad about ourselves if they’re too small, meaning we don’t have a “normal” sized body.

Scientists have tried calculate and define the “average” body for decades. What has come to be known as the “mythical average norm” dates back to the early 1900s, as scientists aimed to define average measurements in the design of military uniforms and fighter jet cockpits. They based calculations on the belief that the average body was a reflection of the proportion of the universe. Thus, for decades and even today, spaces and even clothes are designed with this mythical “normate template” in mind; that is, bodies that are white, youth, and without disabilities.

But, that’s more of an ideal than a reality. We’ve learned in class that “average” is a socially constructed myth. As Aimi Hamraie puts it, “Averages are mathematical calculations, not representations of existing, living bodies.”

The fashion industry has historically been scrutinized for trying to standardize the body and excluding “nonnormate” bodies. Recently, companies like Aerie and Target took strides to ensure different sizes are represented. Many have now recognized that the “one size fits all” standard is unrealistic, and there is no standard or normal body size or shape.

Tiff McFierce models Aerie bike shorts, tee, and chambray button-up
Tiff McFierce, Aerie’s 2020 #AerieREAL Role Model.
Photo: @aerie on Instagram

What many miss, though, is that this goes beyond just the size of a body; what about being inclusive of all kinds of bodies and abilities? That’s where some miss the mark. We finally are being more realistic about body size and challenging the beauty standard. Yet, some people who live with disabilities are still excluded from major fashion brands’ target market. 

Even more problematic is when brands try to represent those people blindly, with models or marketing campaigns, without actually consulting people who live with that disability and creating real solutions for them. 

What is the solution, and do some currently exist? Are a few accessible lines or brands here and there enough, or do we need to find a way to universally design all clothes?

I came upon Open Style Lab, a summer program at Parsons School of Design that pairs fellows from multiple disciplines, like fashion design, engineering, and occupational therapy, with individuals who have different disabilities to create adaptive, yet stylish, garments. 

I reached out to OSL and interviewed Christina Mallon, Saint Joe’s alumna and Chief Marketing Officer of Open Style Lab. She was always passionate about fashion and beauty, and over the last nine years, she lost the use of her hands and elbow as a result of motor neuron disease. Her own need for accessible clothing led her to her niche and passion: inclusive design. 

Mallon’s story has been shared on major platforms, and she currently serves as the Chief Design & Accessibility Officer at the world’s largest agency. 

Mallon wearing a black cape caped coat with a belt.
Mallon wears an accessibly designed coat that you can put on with no hands. Photo: @christina_disarmed on Instagram.

Why does accessible fashion matter? 

For most of us, our clothing is the primary way in which we express, and even find, ourselves. Our identities are rooted and reflected in fashion. For some, it’s an art form.

But for others, who have trouble getting themselves dressed or can’t wear certain styles, they can’t express themselves through fashion. Their clothes are solely functional, and they miss out on that excitement and freedom.  

Mallon says fashion plays a huge role in self-esteem, saying, “As a person with a disability, when you can only get yourself dressed in geriatric-looking clothing meant for the elderly, self esteem and the ability to express yourself is hurt.”

Clothes also signal professionalism and can play a part in professional success. Mallon says studies have shown that wardrobe directly correlates to a person with a disability’s ability to get a job.  

Here’s what’s out there:

Tommy Hilfiger 

Tommy Hilfiger was the first major brand to really take the lead on accessible fashion. In 2016, it unveiled “Tommy Adaptive”, to provide accessible options for people with disabilities.  It includes all the basics, and incorporates features like velcro and one-hand zippers to make getting dressed easier. 

A Tommy Hilfiger model wearing "Tommy Adaptive" shorts, sweatshirt, and backpack.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Vans

Vans recently unveiled their Autism Awareness collection of sensory-inclusive shoes in calming, cool colors designed for children and adults with Autism. They donate some of the proceeds to an Autism philanthropy initiative

Sensory-inclusive royal blue with blue and white checkered sides and sporadic red dots.
Photo: @vans on Instagram
Sensory-inclusive slip-on white Vans with the word "Love" printed on one shoe and "Vans" ON the other.
Photo: @vans on Instagram

Zappos & Target 

Online clothing and shoe store, Zappos, has a portion of their website dedicated to accessible brands and lines, including Tommy Active and Nike FlyEase.

Target also has an accessible line with a plethora of options. 

Mallon says she is proud of the work both brands have done because they consulted people with disabilities in the curation of the lines. 

Universal or Accessible Design?

A major theme of this class has been the difference between universal design and accessible design. Basically, universal design is design that works for literally everybody. It’s basic, functional, and has specific requirements . Accessible design is customizing with a specific person or disability in mind.

Universal Standard is one brand striving toward universality by making ungendered garments in a huge variety of sizes, and that can be exchanged for free if your size changes.

A screenshot of Universal Standard's website, featuring diverse women modeling pieces.
Photo: universalstandard.com

Mallon says universal fashion isn’t exactly realistic. “Universal design implies that it works for everyone. That’s really impossible with clothing, so I talk about inclusively designed clothing, meant to work for as many people as possible.”

Some ways OSL achieves usability for the largest amount of people is making sure there are multiple ways to put a garment on, eliminating tags, or having a different button system. Some of its participants’ most innovative designs include inflatable pants that hook up to an air mattress inflator and a seamless shirt made for a girl with autism featuring her own drawings so she wouldn’t want to rip it up. 

Custom-making an entire wardrobe that works for you isn’t exactly plausible, either. Plus, some of these items can be particularly expensive for the disability community, a challenge Mallon ran into when she worked for Tommy Adaptive.

That’s why one option that Open Style Lab provides is clothing hacking toolkits, so that people with disabilities can “hack” the clothes they have at home to make getting dressed easier.

Open Style Lab's hacking tooolkit.
Photo: @openstylelab on Instagram

Mallon says the most essential thing when it comes to accessible design is including the people you’re designing for in the design process. This is exactly what Open Style Lab prides itself in. 

Not only are individuals with disabilities consulted, but they actively help design and make the garments. OSL gives them an opportunity to be designers.

“We partner with people with disabilities as consultants, and they are a part of the programs. That’s very key, we are designing with, rather than for,” Mallon said.

Open Style Lab consultants pose for a photo as they design.
Photo: @openstylelab on Instagram
Open style Lab participants sketching out their designs. One designer works on a sequin unicorn top.
Photo: @openstylelab on Instagram

The beauty of fashion is that there are so many different genres; it’s not the same for everyone. That’s what makes it art. Even more, the beauty of bodies is that there is no normate or average. While that can make designing for everyone challenging, we need to design less for the mythical average norm and move toward designing for individuals. We just have to make sure that as many people as possible are represented and have the opportunity to partake in the art of fashion, both by wearing it and designing it.

-Alysa Bainbridge, 2021

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