Clothes with Style: Student Designs Fashions for Mobility Impaired Women

Many a shopping spree has been stretched interminably by the quest for the perfect fit. Dressing rooms are laden with […]

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Many a shopping spree has been stretched interminably by the quest for the perfect fit. Dressing rooms are laden with discarded sizes. It seems that finding a fit is bound to inspire a fit sooner or later.

Clothing options don’t often heed the vast differences in the modern body shape, especially for anyone with a special need—be it a dexterity issue, the use of crutches, or simply being seated in a wheelchair most of the day.

Design student Jennifer Stahlberg plans to present some solutions to the everyday problems of fit and fashion for someone with mobility issues in her senior fashion show at the University of Minnesota Department of Design Housing and Apparel.

Stahlberg first began to consider the design challenge after she was injured in a car accident. She became more acutely aware of the feel of fabrics on sensitive skin and the difficulties in working with certain types of clothing. “It could literally ruin my day if something was poking me,” she said.

Ultimately she plans to develop clothing that is both stylish and adaptable to certain mobility needs for the population of people with disabilities, people with temporary conditions and older adults. She will begin with her senior show, which takes standards of fashion and cuts them a new pattern.

“The industry is still relying on things that were developed in the ’40s,” says Stahlberg, for sizing standards that don’t recognize the evolution of body shape and different abilities. Based on a study of army wives, a predominantly young and predominantly white group, the sizing standards were set in the ’40s and have not been revisited since. The population now embodies the sizes and shapes of a variety of cultures, lifestyles and disability issues. Stahlberg says the standards are due for revision.

The technology now available, in 3D imaging and computerized applications is exciting, says Stahlberg, especially for people with different needs. New technology also abounds in synthetic fibers and fabrics that mimic natural fibers, but are washable, treatable for stain resistance, durable and beautiful. The potential is growing for more comfortable and more custom-fit clothes.

Stahlberg shudders a bit when she begins talking about the market. Her class work included much market research, which Stahlberg says she understands, but she doesn’t want it to be the driving force in her designs. The statistics, though, speak to a market that needs attention. “There are a significant number of people with disabilities who would like to work,” she says. Seventy eight percent would like to work, but only about 35 percent do, for a variety of reasons, including transportation, the need for a safety net of social services funding and, often, what to wear.

“To me, there is a certain dignity in looking good,” Stahlberg asserts. “I think everybody knows this phenomenon of how you yourself act differently depending on how you’re dressed. Something as simple as putting Velcro at the back of the neck, kind of akin to a hospital gown, something as simple as that can really rob you of your dignity.”

Stahlberg wants to create simple designs that are appropriate for business, and for fun, but that also make a person’s available dexterity work.

Sometimes the simplicity of a solution is stunning. Holding up a sleek black jacket lined in hounds tooth, with a needle still dangling from the thread, Stahlberg demonstrated the movement of the raglan sleeves, and the ease of a one button closure, which will be positioned on the right for its model, Linda, who has greater mobility with her left arm. Right over left closures isn’t usually done in women’s clothing. So, the solution for Linda means venturing from those existing standards.

Stahlberg is designing for five models who will appear in the April show. She is tailoring the designs specifically for the models, each with mobility issues. Stahlberg worked from the ground up to create the designs.

Slopers are the patterns used to rough out the fit of the clothing. Stahlberg found that she had to work so much to modify the slopers she found in regular patterns, it was best to create custom slopers for her designs, a process that added considerable time and effort to her project, but one on which she can build in the future. In working with the slopers out of pattern books, Stahlberg found that certain things were consistently changing. “I was always moving the shoulders forward. The manual chair users would have the bigger muscles. Even the power chair users see that problem,” she said. “Or the dart shape would be so far off it would create this odd shape.”

Stahlberg considers the temperature of a fabric for the individual’s comfort. She works with specific dexterity issues, determining which side in which to focus the fasteners, deciding on the appropriate size and type of fastener and determining how much movement is necessary in the item.

For Tiffany, closures are an issue, so a sweater set with material that clings together helped avoid the issue. For Lisa, a professional silk jacket is adorned with large buttons with a horizontal buttonhole so the button won’t pop open, and enough space to easily fit the button into the hole. The jacket is roomy enough in the arms to accommodate her crutches’ wrist holds. Lisa’s pants are a dip front sailor pant with pockets diagonal to the waist, as side angle pockets are more difficult to slide a hand into.

One of the most basic, and universally helpful design modifications for someone who uses a wheelchair is the low front, high back pant, that doesn’t bunch in the front, and provides for greater comfort in a length of time in the chair. Stahlberg says four inches from the front to the back would make a world of difference.

Stahlberg plans to create a line of patterns from which she can style clothing that accommodates a variety of mobility issues. She plans to market the line in the Minneapolis area when she finishes school.

The fashion show will be held at 3:00 p.m. on April 16th at the Ted Mann Theater at the University of Minnesota.

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