Functional and Fashionable

Clothing by Julia DeNey

Julia DeNey ’20 researches clothing for children with Sensory Processing Disorder

As an undergraduate in the Department of Fiber Science & Apparel Design, Julia DeNey ’20 wants to take her love of fashion to a new level. DeNey has spent the past year designing, researching, and implementing an independent study to create functional and fashionable clothing for children with Sensory Processing Disorder and those on the autism spectrum. Her project aims to fill what is currently a large gap in the clothing market.

DeNey was inspired by her sorority’s philanthropic work with Autism Speaks, the largest autism advocacy organization in the U.S. She also volunteered at the preschool for kids with autism at Ithaca’s Racker Center, a non-profit whose goal is to support people with disabilities and their families in all phases of their lives. Parents and teachers in the program expressed their frustration in finding clothing that works for their children which also simply looks like a fun outfit for a kid. There are few companies who make clothing for kids with physical disabilities, and even fewer who design for those with sensory disorders.  

As DeNey started to look into the possibilities for a project, she “was surprised at how little information and research had been done, considering how widespread kids on the spectrum are in this country.” She said that much of the “Autism research in general is very new…and most is not sensory-based or clothes-based.” Using the research she did find, DeNey began to apply those ideas to clothing design.

One of the most encouraging things about her project was “talking to people about it and getting the initial interest and positive feedback,” she said, “and getting people to think about needs within the fashion industry that go beyond the aesthetic, while still meeting those aesthetic needs.” The result were three outfits that incorporate an understanding of the needs of children with sensory disorders.

DeNey’s favorite piece, a possible prototype for future work, is a jumpsuit made of soft knit navy and bright pink fabrics, lined with a stretchy fabric with a compression factor to create a heavier body suit on the inside. The piece is complete with colorful contrasting stitching, flat seams, and no tags. “It looks just like a fun jumpsuit,” DeNey says, “but really it has the function hidden in there.” This aspect of hidden function is important to DeNey because she feels it’s important to create clothes “that are cool garments that anyone would want to wear,” but don’t look out of the ordinary, “so everyone feels included.”

In her senior year now, DeNey is continuing her research into kid-friendly clothing and completing more work on her independent study. In October, she was selected to present her project at Cornell’s 69th Trustee-Council Annual Meeting during the Student Pitch Showcase, highlighting student work that is inquisitive, innovative and changing the game.

Though she’s unsure where her career will take her, as she thinks about graduating from Cornell and next steps, she knows that this kind of work “can change a lot within the apparel industry and [benefit] these families who are having difficulty with clothes and shopping. It’s really exciting.”