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How Universal Design Can Inform Inclusive Fashion

woman in wheelchair models in fashion show
Photo Courtesy: Veritas Digital Photography

Katherine Annett-Hitchcock saw a need for fashion to be more inclusive when an acquaintance who had post-polio syndrome, a condition that causes a person’s muscles to weaken over time, asked Annett-Hitchcock to make some personalized dresses.

That request ultimately led her to study “universal design,” a term that describes the practice of designing products and spaces that are accessible to people with a wide range of physical and intellectual abilities. Now an associate professor in the Wilson College of Textiles at NC State, Annett-Hitchcock is inspiring students to learn how concepts of universal design can be applied to clothing.

This spring, Annett-Hitchcock is working with Kathryn Wozniak, an assistant teaching professor of industrial design at NC State, to coach fashion, textiles and design students as they create clothing and accessories for a fashion show hosted by the North Carolina Spinal Cord Injury Association.

In addition, two of Annett-Hitchcock’s students, Sabrina Martin and Mary Grace Wilder, are launching a company to commercialize inclusive designs they came up with in a course last fall.

The Abstract spoke to Annett-Hitchcock on what it means for fashion to be inclusive or adaptive.

The Abstract: What is adaptive or inclusive clothing? Are those terms interchangeable?

Annett-Hitchcock: If you adapt something, you are changing it or tweaking it for a special need. Whereas, if you talk about inclusivity in design, it means that the designer is focused on creating something that can be used by many different people from the get-go.

That’s going back to the principles of universal design, which were developed by an architect, Ron Mace, who studied at NC State and founded the Center for Universal Design in the College of Design. That’s one of the main reasons I wanted to work at this university – it was a huge deal. If you look at the principles of universal design, they’re about inclusivity.

If you think about the built environment, [universal design] was about designing items to be used no matter your physical ability. Think about door handles. Not everybody can grip a rounded door handle. But if you’re carrying a lot of stuff, the horizontal lever will allow you to open that door without a lot of effort.

TA: How has fashion incorporated adaptive or universal design?

Annett-Hitchcock: The brand that’s probably most in the public eye right now for adaptive fashion is tweaking existing garments to adapt them. There are more and more brands focusing on specific items now. There is a company that just does jeans that have adaptive features to them. There are also larger retailers getting into the adaptive market too. This has grown in the past four or five years. When I first came to NC State, I could have done a Google search and seen two things, and now I’m now seeing pages of items and links.

The industry, meaning standardized, mass-produced fashion, has been slow in getting to this point because they see it as a market of one consumer. The industry needs numbers to embrace a concept, and I think those numbers are starting to make sense as more activists come forward and demand change.

TA: What do people do if they can’t purchase what they need off the rack?

Annett-Hitchcock: Some people have things custom tailored for them, but most retailers don’t have a tailor on hand. You have to know a family member or business who can make adaptations for you.

TA: Two of your students are now working on a company to commercialize adaptive/inclusive clothing. What did you do to inspire them?

Annett-Hitchcock: I told them from the start that the best inclusive or universally designed features are supposed to be applicable to many people. For one of their designs – a shirt – it was about creating a sleeve that is geared to the needs of the wearer. To create the sleeve, we thought about designing it like a curtain you can pull up on and it gathers on a ribbon. You can take that sleeve end and pull up on it. It just happens that if you have an arm amputation, if you wanted to have both your sleeves the same length, this design would conceal the amputation, or you could pull up the sleeve so it’s shorter. The choice to conceal or reveal can be a very personal one, and this design gives people a choice. That shirt could be equally usable by someone, say, if they’re running around after their kids and they want to shorten the sleeves for practicality.

TA: How has your research explored this topic?

Annett-Hitchcock: I was involved in a project most recently focused on body scanning. We wanted to incorporate that technology into virtual reality for consumers with disabilities. If we can design clothing on an avatar, people could see themselves in that clothing, and it takes away the inconvenience and availability issues of getting people in to do live fittings in person.

TA: What is the future of adaptive or inclusive fashion?

Annett-Hitchcock: It’s about encouraging and being inclusive from the very beginning – not only in what you design, but who you are including in the conversation.

This post was originally published in NC State News.