Common social perceptions about people with disabilities mean that nondisabled people are perennially surprised by the fact that, gosh, we really are just like them. One area where that plays out in really frustrating ways is when it comes to fashion for people with physical disabilities. Or, should I say, the lack thereof, because there are almost no designers focusing specifically on designing clothes for people using wheelchairs and other mobility devices, or people with disabilities that may affect limb length and body structure.
Which means that if you want to be fashionable, you’re forced to modify clothing, because you have no options you can buy off the rack. Such modifications may be necessary not just for fashion reasons, but also comfort ones; for example, wheelchair users are more comfortable in clothing that is not cut for people spending most of their time standing and walking. Garments like skirts and trousers designed for ambulatory people can become twisted and don’t sit or fall right, which makes them uncomfortable and also changes the line of the garment. No one wants to be sitting around with a skirt that’s gotten all bunched-up and wrinkly, because it doesn’t feel nice, let alone look nice.
When it comes to fashion designers, there are some very specific assumptions about the kinds of bodies they are catering for. Those bodies are thin and ambulatory, and those are the kinds of bodies designers focus on in their work. Designers who do consider physical disabilities in their work may be more focused on function than form, working on garments that will perform well for people with specific disability needs, but might not necessarily be fashionable. Those garments work, and it’s important to have access to them, but they don’t meet an unmet and unacknowledged need: the desire to be fashionable.
Individuals with physical disabilities are often labeled ugly and unsightly, and it’s assumed they feel the same way about themselves. This leads to the conclusion that their bodies are things that should be covered up and hidden away, rather than displayed, and if any garments are going to be designed for them, those garments should minimise rather than highlight their disabilities. They should create illusions and do tricks to do things like making someone’s legs look longer, or concealing the fact that someone has one arm. The idea that someone might be comfortable in a disabled body, perhaps even to the point of wanting to show it off, is utterly alien.
The wheelchair user who wants to wear a backless couture gown is an oddity, because such garments are designed for people with nice, normal, beautiful bodies, and of course someone using a wheelchair for mobility doesn’t have a nice body, let alone a beautiful one, right? Couture garments don’t need to be designed for people with disabilities because people with disabilities don’t really exist in the fashion landscape; they can be ignored, and garments for them can be delegated to lesser designers who focus on purely functional garments intended to cover, conceal, and minimise frightening bodies that don’t belong in the public eye.
Some people with physical disabilities are very interested in fashion, just like some nondisabled people are. They follow fashion week and fashion news, they know their designers, they try to attend fashion events, they visit museums and displays of fashion history. They’re passionate about the garment industry and may be particularly knowledgeable about specific design houses and trends. They’re interested in keeping pace with fashion trends because they love fashion. And often, they’re barred from participating in it; the designers they love don’t design for them, the venues where fashion events happen aren’t accessible, they’re told they don’t qualify for inclusion in the fashion world because their bodies don’t belong.
Unless you are wealthy and have a physical disability, which is a highly unusual combination, there’s a limited chance of ever having designer garments that will fit you, unless you’re willing to substantially modify a garment off the rack. Custom couture for people with disabilities is rare, because so few have the money to pay for it, and consequently, disability doesn’t even land on the radar of fashion designers. Contrast that with the growing market for high-end maternity wear, driven by demand from celebrities and major public figures who want to be able to go out in pregnancy while looking fashionable. That market drive fed an awareness of pregnant bodies and how to design for them, and created a new fashion niche.
For people with physical disabilities, buying clothes of any form can be an exercise in frustration. Being fashionable is even more of an uphill battle, because fashion doesn’t include you and doesn’t want to include you, even though your body should present an interesting challenge to designers. People interested in the craft and construction of clothing should be intrigued by non-normative bodies and the potential they offer, instead of turning up their noses at the very idea and suggesting that people with physical disabilities aren’t even worthy to wear their products.
I want to live in a world where wheelchair users roll the runway along with ambulatory models, where amputees strut alongside people with other kinds of physical disabilities, and where it’s not a stunt, but a genuine integration into the fashion community. I’d like to see physical disabilities represented in couture because so many people are disabled, and because at least some of them want to be involved in fashion and couture, and are passionate about garments, and are forced to cobble together their own fashion because nothing out there fits them.