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Students design functional fashion for wheelchair athletes

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WashU students design prototype garments for athletes with disabilities

Rugby is hard-hitting, fast-moving and adrenaline-fueled. But for elite Paralympic wheelchair athletes, the sport also can pose particular challenges. Close-fitting apparel can be difficult to don and doff. Shirtsleeves, rubbed constantly by carbon fiber wheels, quickly fray. Most critically, spinal cord injuries can impair the body’s ability to regulate temperature during exercise.

“We’re pretty hard on our equipment,” said Clayton Braun, a gold medal-winning defender for the St. Louis Spartans wheelchair rugby team. “There’s nothing really specific for us out there. A lot of times, we’re finding things, modifying them and making our own.”

Over the last several months, students at Washington University in St. Louis — led by faculty from the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, the School of Engineering & Applied Science and the School of Medicine’s Program in Occupational Therapy — have worked to research, design and construct prototype garments specifically tailored to the needs of athletes with disabilities.

“This type of interdisciplinary project, by engaging design thinking, develops life skills that can expand creative problem-solving for all involved,” said Mary Ruppert-Stroescu, associate professor of fashion design. “All clothing has aspects of fashion and function; these wheelchair athletes deserve the best of both.”

For example, student designers incorporated different cooling methods, including AeroReact fabric donated by Nike, while strategically reinforcing those areas most susceptible to wear. Other design elements included:

  • Magnetic closures, rather than buttons or zippers.
  • Compression fabrics, to support proper posture.
  • Mesh fabrics, to improve ventilation.
  • Extra-long sleeves to accommodate overhead movement.
  • Modular garment parts for ease of replacing damaged areas.
  • Loops and extra-wide pant legs to facilitate dressing.

“This has really opened my eyes to functional and technical design,” said Chelsea Wallaert, a graduate student in occupational therapy.

Lola Idowu, a senior in the Olin Business School, concurred: “We really tried to understand who we were building for.”

For more information about the fashion design program, visit For more information about the Program in Occupational Therapy, visit For more information about St. Louis Spartans Rugby, visit

By Liam Otten

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