Every week, our Historian Tracey Panek shares throwback stories from the Archives and the company.
The Milwaukee Art Museum recently opened Functional Fashions, a new exhibition on adaptive clothing for those with special needs. Among the show highlights? A 1975 Levi’s® jean design for the disabled.
During a research residency at New York University’s Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, designer Helen Cookman recognized a need and a business opportunity: beautiful clothes with features for the millions of Americans living with disabilities. That led to the creation of the Clothing Research and Development Foundation, which she co-founded with New York Times Style Editor Virginia Pope. From 1955 to 1976, Helen, who was deaf herself, and Virginia oversaw the largest collaborative effort to create functional fashions by, with and for disabled persons in the United States. Nearly 30 of the top clothing designers in America created garments to fit disabled bodies.
LS&Co. got involved with foundation when Helen received funding from the Levi Strauss Foundation. They collaborated on a design for pants. “Levi’s® jeans were an important part of the Functional Fashions line,” says Natalie Wright, Fellow at the Chipstone Foundation at the Milwaukee Art Museum, who curated the exhibit. Natalie paired an original 1975 newsletter from the LS&Co. Archives illustrating the adaptive Levi’s® pants with the trouser design patent by Helen.
The functional Levi’s® jeans included useful features such as stretch denim and full-length zips in the side seams that opened from the top or bottom. The zips also stopped anywhere along the seam. Another useful design feature was a special inside half belt buttoning on either side to hold the jean in place when the seat dropped. The belt could also be reversed for a front drop. A roomy seat and easy-to-reach pockets were added benefits.
LS&Co. offered the functional jeans directly to consumers through special-order brochures at doctor’s offices, hospitals, and rehabilitation clinics.
The company offered the jeans for $24.50 with “The Contemporary Levi’s® Look-Plus Many Functional Features You’ll Like.” And they were designed as Levi’s® flares—a style popular at the time.
Terry Brickley, columnist of Handicap Sules in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, captured the excitement over the adaptive Levi’s® jeans in an article in 1976. “I have some information that will make many of your readers happy,” he began, sharing news about the new functional jeans for sale. “People in wheelchairs or on crutches are now able to join the jeans generation.”
Levi’s® functional jeans were some of the last garments Helen worked on before her death in 1973. The line of functional fashions ended when Helen and Virginia passed away and has since been largely forgotten. But Helen’s vision and the Levi’s® functional jeans they created remain an important legacy to inspire inclusive fashions of the future.
Keep up with the LS&Co. Archives and other cool LS&Co. heritage news by following Tracey on Twitter, @TraceyPanek, and stay tuned to Unzipped!