Saturday 23 September 2017


“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”

― Mark Twain

Caregivers of children or adults with mobility challenges know what I'm talking about when I say that getting your loved one dressed is a lot harder than making dinner for them.  Ensuring winter warmth is a nightmare for carers of wheelchair users. We want our loved ones with mobility challenges to look great and to be au courant with contemporary fashion trends. We need designers who understand our family life and our fashion aspirations.

Today I want to talk about an inclusive fashion innovator of the 1960's and how her work evolved into a contemporary company that's designing and producing a range of high quality, fabulous disability-friendly designs for today's caregiving families.

As it happens, our daughter Natalie Wright is a scholar in American material culture (yes, there is such a specialization in this area!). Very recently, Natalie researched the work of Florence Eiseman, a children's clothing designer in the 1960's who cared deeply about the role clothing could have to help children with disabilities function and fit in amongst their peers (remember, this was the era of polio). Eiseman was also acutely aware of using clothing to teach children to be independent dressers, thus easing the burden on caregivers.

'Florence Eiseman: Designing Childhood for the American Century' is currently on exhibit at the Museum of Wisconsin Art. Here's what Natalie wrote about Eiseman's Functional Fashions label for the exhibition catalogue:

In 1963 award-winning designer Florence Eiseman did something unexpected by creating the first commercially available, ready-to-wear high-end fashions for children with disabilities. At the invitation of leading designer and advocate for the disabled Helen Cookman, Eiseman created pieces that incorporated special features to accommodate a variety of abilities. Their project, which resulted in at least three years of Eiseman designs with Cookman’s Functional Fashions label, constitutes a fascinating case study in histories of disability, design, and childhood and their intersections in the early 1960s. Eiseman and Cookman sought to create clothing geared toward physical accommodation and psychological empowerment. This was meaningful work for Eiseman, whose design ethos presented an inclusive and progressive vision of childhood centered on the idea that “all children are beautiful.” 

Today, 'functional fashions' look different from those in the 1960's, but they're no less fabulous in their design, durability and functionality. Koolway Sports is an innovative Canadian company following in Eiseman's design footsteps. Koolway's outerwear is designed for wheelchair users of all ages, in all weather. It's designed with caregivers in mind, so it's easy to put on and take off. The bright colours and superior quality make it extremely durable and fashionable.

Florence Eiseman's designs were expensive and probably affordable only for upper-income families. Today, the superior quality of Koolway designs means they're not cheap either.  But Canadian and USA families have many ways of accessing funding assistance to ease the financial burden of dressing their loved ones with disabilities very, very well. Koolway's products make it easy for children and adult wheelchair users alike to be warm and dry outside while looking great. This clothing makes a real difference to community participation and to personal happiness - the natural by-products of great design.

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