KENT — Kaycee Marshall’s prom dress experience was a nightmare.

The Kent State University senior, who has scoliosis and sacral agenesis, recalls struggling to find a dress that worked for her body and her wheelchair, but most importantly, a dress that she loved.

Woven fabrics had no stretch to accommodate her back. Poofy dresses with layers of fabric were uncomfortable to sit on. Long dresses got caught in her wheelchair.

“I’m a size small, but I had to get a size 18 just to get it over my spine. So then it fit there, but nowhere else, so I ended up getting a corset back, which has give, but I couldn’t lace it up myself,” said Marshall, a fashion design student who graduates Saturday. “That wasn’t functional for me: using the bathroom, getting dressed, I couldn’t do that by myself, so that’s where the idea for the collection of adaptive evening wear came in.”

Marshall has been researching and designing her line “The Engine That Did It All” for close to two years, starting as a junior studying in New York City. Last month, Marshall debuted her adaptive formal line at Kent State’s annual fashion show to display how small tweaks can make beautiful designs more inclusive. And as she graduates Saturday, Marshall heads out into the world of fashion to further that message.

“I have firsthand experience, but the disabled community is so diverse,” Marshall said. To begin her research, she looked at past adaptive lines — like those from Tommy Hilfiger, Zappos and Vans — and asked for feedback from Facebook groups for the disabled community.

“I asked people about their dress shopping experiences, and what I found was that a lot of people don’t even wear dresses. I wanted to find out why," she said, adding her line tries to address the adaptive issues that prevent people from choosing dresses.

With input from her professor, Linda Ohrn-McDaniel, who last year worked with another fashion student who also developed an adaptive line, Marshall experimented with fabrics, shapes and enclosures to see what could work for people with varying abilities.

She chose knit fabrics that had stretch for women with scoliosis. She placed zippers on the bottom front of dresses, as opposed to in the center of the back, to give women the independence to get in and out of their own garments. She strategically placed cascades between the knee and ankle so that the extra fabric would not get caught in wheelchairs, and she featured zippers on both sides of bodices to accommodate those with limb differences and those who have catheters on either side of their bodies.

“We had to think of what’s comfortable when you’re sitting, what you’re sitting on and how does it stretch around the back where it doesn’t really matter what it looks like because you’re sitting,” Ohrn-McDaniel said.

 

Fashion-focused

“Whether you’re a person in a wheelchair or not, you’re not getting it because it’s made for someone who uses a wheelchair. You’re getting it because you love it, and it also happens to work for someone who sits in a wheelchair,” Ohrn-McDaniel said.

Marshall focused her line on a steampunk aesthetic reminiscent of the wheelchair used by each of her models.

“Steampunk is all about the machine and how the machine is built, so I paralleled that with the wheelchairs and the machinery of that,” Marshall said.

To create that look, Marshall used olives, browns and maroons and incorporated copper hardware. She also hid small references to wheelchairs into her pieces, like the cascades which when laid flat, are actually in the shape of a gear.

The name of the collection, “The Engine That Did It All,” also focused on machinery and referenced “The Little Engine That Could,” a childhood favorite.

 

Looking to future

After creating her line and working with her models, Marshall said she now wants to pursue a career in adaptive design.

After graduation, Marshall will go home for a week before heading to New York City, where she will discuss disabilities in the fashion industry as a panelist for the Council of Fashion Designers of America, a governing body for the industry. She will speak not only about her adaptive line, but also her personal experiences of working in the fashion industry and getting around New York City in a wheelchair.

She will also get to share that message with a wider audience when she appears on “The Today Show” sometime the week of May 20.

Though she does not have a job lined up yet, she hopes to stay in New York, where more and more mainstream lines are incorporating adaptive lines and adaptive features.

“I think it’s much more satisfying knowing that you’re making a difference with what you’re doing. It’s much more rewarding I think than just making pretty dresses. I’m still making pretty dresses, but I’m getting something out of it,” Marshall said.