Daily Living

Adaptive Clothing

Adaptive Clothing

For people with arthritis, sometimes just getting dressed every day can be a real challenge.  Increasingly, more companies are starting to produce adaptive clothing specifically designed to make dressing easier for people who experience difficulties.

Photography  of Charlotte Carbone
In this article, adaptive clothing designer Charlotte Carbone, episode winner of fashion design show Stitched, shares her perspectives on the industry. 

What interests you about clothing design?

I went into fashion school because I wanted to make beautiful, unique clothes, but I stayed in fashion because I realized the life changing, problem solving potential of design. Fashion is powerful. It impacts and reflects our identity, behaviour, and well-being.  I also just love working with my hands - it is so satisfying to take a garment from raw materials to finished product. 

What has influenced you most as a designer?

My lived experiences influence my design process the most. University taught me how to think critically, maybe too critically because some people may say I take fashion too seriously, haha.  My first thoughts when brainstorming ideas are, “How can this help the _____ community?” “What is this contributing to the discussion about ____?” Fashion can be many extremes, and one of those extremes is frivolous and wasteful. I want to challenge this perception and reception of fashion, by creating meaningful and useful designs. I am always testing the boundaries of acceptance and am not afraid of some controversy. 

How did you get involved in adaptive clothing design?

I had been aware of adaptive clothing since university however I did not pursue the niche when I was a student. I also did not personally know anyone that used adaptive clothing. It was in my first job after graduation that I got involved in the field. I applied to an online job posting after it was forwarded to me by a professor. They knew I was interested in human-centered design, such as adaptive clothing design, and thought I’d be a good fit for a startup. They were right, and I was hired by an adaptive clothing company. 

In your view, what makes a piece of clothing adaptive?

I believe that for clothing to be adaptive, it needs to have been designed with the intention of helping people who live with a disability. Adaptive design features may include snaps or Velcro on the shoulders, back, or side seams for ease of dressing. I do not consider clothing that is simply large sized to be adaptive. Just because it’s easy to put on, doesn’t make it adaptive. Designing adaptive clothing is a science. A truly human-centered design process should include the end user’s input from the start, instead of modifying existing products to be just “good enough” for them. 

What factors do you take into consideration when starting a new adaptive design?

The guiding question for my design is, “How can I make this adaptable, accessible, and fashionable?”  I think about my end users – their lifestyles, their dressing needs, their demographics. I also think about what is currently available and currently worn by people who could benefit from adaptive clothing. This type of clothing has a clear function, but it must make you feel cute too. Adaptive clothing should not be restricted by the functionality. It should be a source of creativity, criteria that pushes you to think differently about how clothes can function in a day in the life of another person. 

What should people look for in adaptive clothing?

Like with non-adaptive clothing, check the quality of the fabric and trims. Are the snaps or Velcro in a place that will bother you when you’re sitting or lying down? Are they securely attached? Can you or your caregiver easily use these closures? Will this fabric look and feel just as good after 10 washes? But most of all, do you feel good when you wear it? 

What are the advantages of having adaptive clothing? Could similar results be achieved by altering non-adaptive clothing for individual needs? 

A clear advantage of adaptive clothing is the functional benefit of easier dressing. The more personal and human aspects may include improved self-image and decreased anxiety. It is freeing when daily dressing is no longer laborious. That emotional and physical energy can be redirected somewhere more useful, and it adds up fast. Perhaps some improvements can be achieved by altering non-adaptive clothing, but it may become a make-work project if the garment is just not the right one to begin with. Such as jeans – it’s better to invest in adaptive jeans then try to modify them yourself. 

Are there affordable adaptive clothing options or easy adjustments that can be made to non-adaptive clothing?

Yes, there are some alterations you can make to your existing wardrobe. If you or someone you know can sew, that would be very helpful to make these alterations more durable.
Here are some suggestions for those who are able to dress themselves:

Do you have trouble with small buttons or zippers? 

  • Replace them with a larger size button or zipper head. 

Are button-up shirts difficult to do up?

  • Put fabric-adhesive Velcro dots between the buttons or sew shut some of the placket so the shirt is a pull-over.

 Are clothes too tight to maneuver your body through? 

  • Try cutting a 3-4” slit down the center back neck and adding a snap or Velcro closure at the top. This keyhole neckline will give you more room to work with when dressing.  

Is it tough putting on pants? 

  • Try adding ribbon loops to the side seams so you don’t have to strain your body or arm to reach the waist.  

These fixes do have their limitations, but they are a starting point for figuring out your needs before investing in adaptive clothing or going to a professional tailor who will meet your needs precisely.

What are your views of adaptive clothing in the fashion industry?

I think that adaptive clothing is a very small niche in fashion. It is underserved because companies do not see financial value in it, however, there is great social value in making fashion accessible. Fashion is an industry that depends on exclusion and elitism, however the movement to democratize fashion has been growing this past decade. Included in this movement is the fight against ableism, a system that normalizes and prioritizes certain types of bodies and abilities while stigmatizing other types of bodies and abilities, so hopefully more companies will recognize the need for adaptive clothing.   

What is one of the largest challenges you see facing the adaptive clothing industry?

The largest challenges are awareness and accessibility. Firstly, awareness - the general public does not understand what adaptive clothing is. It’s the type of product that you generally don’t know about until you need it. Specifically, there is a need for education about adaptive clothing in the fashion industry and design curriculums. Secondly, accessibility – I mean this in terms of money and where to buy it. Adaptive clothing is more expensive compared to non-adaptive clothing because it requires more trims, more research and development, and is typically made in small quantities. Adaptive clothing also is not widely available in brick and mortar stores, and even if it is, can people who need it get to the store location? If it is available online, can people find the website, navigate the assortment, and make a confident purchase? These are barriers that need breaking, or at least better accommodations. 

What are your thoughts on the future of adaptive clothing?

I think the adaptive clothing market is in its infancy, so it is hard to tell what is to come. There are small designers doing adaptive clothing and capsule collections by large retailers. We are an aging population, and fashion should evolve with consumer needs. There needs to be a huge shift in fashion culture and society in order to prioritize and invest in people who are aging and/or have a disability. 

As a designer, what do you hope people will get from your designs?

I hope that people feel seen when they wear my clothes. I hope they feel empowered to embrace their identities head on. 

For more tips on assistive devices, and getting dressed, check out our assistive devices tool, and our getting dressed life hack video.