Natalie E. WrightGraduate Studentshe/her/hers

I am a doctoral candidate of Design History. My dissertation, titled “Functional Fashions: Dress and Disability in the United States, 1950-1975,” historicizes the concept of “function” in the 20th-century United States by revealing the significant role that it played in the social construction of disability. This project investigates the period between 1950 and 1975, when leaders in the fields of design, medicine, and public policy believed that clothing could make disabled people in the U.S. “functional.” It brings to light a national campaign that sought to increase disabled Americans’ public visibility and participation through their improved dress and, in turn, their larger economic contributions. This campaign targeted widespread anxieties about the perceived negative affect that disability had on an individual’s self-worth, which en masse was seen as a threat to society. I aim to understand what it meant for a disabled person to embody “function,” what it meant for designed objects to script function, and why this ideal was so closely linked to the aesthetics of self-fashioning, both through the literal meaning of clothing and the broader meaning as presentation to the public.

I have held curatorial positions at the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection, the Chipstone Foundation, and the Canadian Museum of History, as well as research positions at University College London and the Royal Geographical Society. I am presently contributing editor for Material Intelligence magazine. This year, I will be the 2023-2024 George Gurney Predoctoral Fellow at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and I am a member of the 2023 Center for Curatorial Leadership Mellon Foundation Seminar.

At UW–Madison, I have curated numerous in-person and online exhibitions at the Center for Design and Material Culture. I was associate curator of “Questioning Things: A Quarter Century of Material Culture Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison” (2022, Ruth Davis Design Gallery), and co-curator of “Politics at Home: Textiles as American History” (2021, Ruth Davis Design Gallery). In 2020 I curated the “Rapid Response Mask Collecting Project” (Lynn Mecklenburg Textile Gallery).

Prior to joining UW–Madison, I was the Charles Hummel Curatorial Fellow at the Chipstone Foundation, where I collaboratively curated the exhibits Functional Fashions (2020, 20th- and 21st-Century Design Galleries, Milwaukee Art Museum), Apartment 4: Iris Häussler and The Chipstone Foundation (2018, John Michael Kohler Arts Center), Florence Eiseman: Designing Childhood for the American Century (2017, Museum of Wisconsin Art), and Mrs. M.—–’s Cabinet (2016, Milwaukee Art Museum).

I completed my MA at the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture (2015) and my BA at the University of Toronto, Trinity College (2013).

Awards and Recognition

  • George Gurney Predoctoral Fellow, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2023-2024
  • Schlesinger Library Dissertation Grant, Harvard University
  • Rose and Sigmund Strochlitz Travel Grant, University of Connecticut
  • Ida and William Rosenthal Foundation Scholar, Attingham Summer School
  • Joseph-Armand Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship (Doctoral), Social Science and Humanities Research Council
  • Graber Trust Fund Design Studies Scholarship, University of Wisconsin–Madison
  • Design Studies Welcome Scholarship, University of Wisconsin–Madison
  • Coco Kim Scholarship, Society of Winterthur Fellows
  • Professor Banerje Canadian Studies Prize, University of Toronto
  • Lois F. McNeil Fellowship, Winterthur Program in American Material Culture
  • Trinity College Chancellor’s Scholarship, University of Toronto

Selected Publications and Presentations

Wright, N. E. (2022). “Functional Fashions for the Physically Handicapped”: Disability and Dress in Postwar America. Dress, 48(2), 143-162.

Wright, N. E. “Wright on Mandell, ‘Crafting Dissent: Handicraft as Protest from the American Revolution to the Pussyhats,'” H-Net Material Culture, September, 2021.

Wright, N. E. (2021). Ikuo Yokoyama’s Motorcycle: Entropic Decay and the Anatomy of a Disaster. In M. Brückner & S. Isenstadt (Eds.), Elusive Archives: Material Culture Studies in Formation. Newark: University of Delaware Press.

Wright, N. E. (2017). Florence Eiseman: Functional Fashions for Every Child. In S. A. Carter (Ed.), Designing Childhood for the American Century (pp. 24-29). West Bend: Museum of Wisconsin Art.

Featured Media

Professional photo of Natalie Wright in front of 100 Women Wall.


  • Design Studies

Degree Program

  • PhD Human Ecology: Design Studies


  • MA, Winterthur Program in American Material Culture
  • BA, University of Toronto, Trinity College



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