Natalie E. Wright

George Gurney Predoctoral Fellow
photo portrait of women
Fellowship Type
  • Predoctoral Fellow
Fellowship Name
George Gurney
  • University of Wisconsin-Madison
Functional Fashions: Dress and Disability in the United States, 1950–1975

My project historicizes the concept of “function” in the twentieth-century United States by revealing the significant role that it played in the social construction of disability. Beyond the style movements of functionalist and streamlined design, I see function as a vital, but under-theorized, culture in twentieth-century America that has been overshadowed by its counterparts: independence and rehabilitation.


My dissertation investigates the period between 1950 and 1975, when leaders in the fields of design, medicine, and public policy believed that clothing could make disabled people in the United States “functional.” It brings to light a national campaign that sought to increase disabled Americans’ public visibility and participation through their improved dress and in turn their larger economic contributions. This campaign targeted widespread anxieties about the perceived negative affect that disability had on an individual’s self-worth, which en masse was seen as a threat to society. I aim to understand what it meant for a disabled person to embody “function”; what it meant for designed objects to script function; and why this ideal was so closely linked to the aesthetics of self-fashioning both through the literal meaning of clothing and the broader meaning as presentation to the public.