Functional Fashions
March 23, 2019 - April 1, 2020
Between 1955 and 1976, nearly thirty of the United States' top clothing designers created garments to fit disabled bodies under the Functional Fashions line. It remains the largest collaborative effort to create clothing by, with, and for disabled persons in American history. Brands ranged from high-end sportswear to everyday labels. Leading the charge was designer Helen Cookman (1894-1973), whose own disability was hearing loss. During a research residency 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. She co-authored the book Functional Fashions for the Physically Handicapped and developed a sample collection while still at the institute. With the New York Times Style Editor Virginia Pope (1885-1978), 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. In the postwar era, the country held a notion of independence that expected citizens 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. In keeping with the disability rights movement, the text throughout this display uses identity-first language (e.g., “disabled person”, rather than person-first language (e.g., “person with a disability”).