By Meghan Chua
British Vogue’s May 2023 issue prominently features stars with disabilities, centering its focus on accessibility in fashion and media. In publishing the issue, its editors asked, “We all engage with fashion, but does fashion engage with all of us?”
While that introduction frames the conversation around fashion and access as a new – and overdue – one for the magazine, Natalie Wright will tell you there is a much longer history of fashion designed by and for people with disabilities.
“A lot of the narratives of projects like the Vogue issue will often say the fashion industry has always neglected the disabled population,” Wright said. “It would be fair to say that the fashion industry may have done that more recently, but we do have these moments in time like the post-war U.S. where it’s such a strong focus.”
Wright hopes to shine a light on these designers and their work through her research as a PhD candidate in Design Studies and design history at UW–Madison, aiming to recognize and elevate their commitment to designing for disabled people.
Originally from Canada, Wright attended high school in London, where she grew interested in museums and how they use objects to tell stories. She earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Toronto and then went on to a master’s at the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture where she gained experience in exhibit curation. Later, she was a curatorial fellow at the Chipstone Foundation in Milwaukee.
Disability was always part of Wright’s life as her older brother, Nicholas, has cerebral palsy. She began thinking more academically about disability studies during her time at the Chipstone Foundation, where one of her projects was curating a display of garments and documents related to the “Functional Fashions” clothing line for the Milwaukee Art Museum.
Wright was excited when she found out that disability studies and design history were approaches that she could combine and pursue at the doctoral level. “I really wanted to come to UW–Madison when I saw just how many leading scholars from both fields are based here,” she said.
Wright’s research focuses on the history of disability and dress in the U.S. between 1950 and 1975, using case studies of clothing designed for disabled people and the stories of designers, many of whom were disabled themselves.
“A lot of people who were working on these various things did so right at the end of their careers, and they felt it was very important. For a lot of them, it was the culmination of their training and it was their legacy,” Wright said.
A recurring theme with these clothing lines was the idea that they were “functional” and would “make functional” people with disabilities. Wright uses her dissertation to explore how the idea of function was important during the post-war period in the U.S.
This fall, Wright will have the opportunity to further explore these ideas as the 2023-24 George Gurney Predoctoral Fellow at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Her principle advisor will be visual culture expert and historian of the body Robin Veder, editor of the journal American Art, with whom she plans to explore 20th-century American artwork that might illustrate the answers to the questions she asks in her research. Wright’s co-advisor at the Smithsonian will be historian of disability and material culture Katherine Ott at the National Museum of American History.
“There’s so much artwork at the Smithsonian American Art Museum that shows everyday life in the U.S., and I’m really curious to see if I can start to pick up on visual cues of what function or functionality meant for non-disabled groups and people with disabilities alike,” Wright said.
Wright will have a lot of other opportunities during the fellowship in Washington, D.C., including access to the National Archives to gather material for her dissertation and joining a cohort of scholars at the American Art Museum with whom she can attend lectures, build relationships, and collaborate.
While she is certainly excited for the fellowship year, Wright said she will miss Madison.
“UW has been such a good home for this project, so I’m really grateful to be here and with my committee members and my advisor [Marina Moskowitz],” she said. “I’ve just had such a good experience doing that research and writing here.”
Wright hopes to continue highlighting the stories that she finds through her research by continuing to curate museum exhibits. She also wants to publish a book on the subject based on her dissertation, and has plans for future book chapters and articles for wider audiences about these histories.
She added that it’s been a fun challenge to figure out where the records of disabled clothing designers are kept and where there are examples of garments that still exist from that time. Because the field of disability studies is relatively young, garments aren’t always labeled in a way that makes it clear they are part of this story. Digging through the archives, Wright said, is a great way to illuminate these stories and shift our perspective on that history.
“People tend to think that what we call now adaptive clothing is a recent phenomenon, but it’s existed for such a long time,” Wright said. “The post-war timeframe is just one important moment on this longer timeline.”