Clothes are the most intimate artefacts that touch our skin. Every day our moving bodies are shaping and being shaped by what we wear. Existing fashion design practices do not always consciously consider the sensations that unfold during this dynamic mutual shaping and their influence on how the wearer feels, both physically and emotionally (6). Such considerations are particularly pertinent for people on the autism spectrum and other neurodivergent groups, in particular those with ADHD (1). For many, the sensations crafted between the moving body and clothing can be overwhelming, causing undue stress on the body as it responds by fight or flight. This results in distraction, anxiety and mood swings that disable the person’s interactions with the world around them (3).
My practice-based PhD research asks: how can fashion designers consciously craft sensations for, and with, wearers with diverse sensory needs?
My design research actively includes people with diverse sensory experiences. These are 9 people who are in full-time employment or mainstream education in Norway. They are either on the autism spectrum, have been diagnosed with ADHD, or have other sensory processing challenges. I did not discover the connection between clothing sensations and well-being; my participants live with this awareness everyday. My role as a design researcher is to cultivate a collaborative dialogue, whereby, we can work together to develop ways to improve their own lives through my creative practice (5).
In the first phase I have deployed qualitative wardrobe studies (2), with my participant’s existing clothing, to explore and identify their sensory values and behaviours. In the second phase, I will implement these insights into my fashion design practice by positioning my participant’s moving bodies at the forefront of the design process.
Three items of clothing have emerged as design case studies: itchy knitwear, restrictive jeans and noisy rainwear. My participants have revealed individual physical sensory needs, yet they have a desire to access universal emotional experiences: “to fit-in”, “freedom”, “comfort”, “self-expression”. The findings from the wardrobe studies have been actions that each participant aspires for their clothing to support:
“I want to climb trees”
“I want to dance like a child”
“I want to escape into nature”
This image illustrates how I have begun to translate these insights into my fashion practice, shifting towards a soma design process (4). Through participatory design, I am examining the reciprocal dialogue between the moving body and the tactile soundscape of the clothing prototypes. I am interested in how this way of working informs the design, and subsequently the wearer’s well-being.
- Dunn, W. (2008) Living sensationally: understanding your senses. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers
- Fletcher, K and Klepp, I.G. (ed.) (2017) Opening up the Wardrobe: A Methods Book. Oslo: Novus AS.
- Gaudion, K. (2015) A Designer’s Approach: Exploring how Autistic Adults with Additional Learning Disabilities Experience their Home Environment. London: Royal College of Art. Höök, K. (2018) Designing with the Body: Somaesthetics Interaction Design. MIT Press.
- Pink, S. (2015) Doing Sensory Ethnography. London: SAGE Publications..
- Van Dongen, P. (2019) A Designer’s Material- Aesthetics Reflections. Arnheim: Artez.
Keywords: Autism spectrum, ADHD, sensory experiences, fashion design, inclusive design