Have you ever noticed that clothes look and feel different when you’re sitting down rather than standing up? That pair of jeans which seemed just the right length when you were standing in front of the mirror show an unnecessarily large amount of sock or ankle when you’re sitting on a chair. When you’re sitting down, the dress which clung sexily to your curves when upright makes your not-all-that-big-thank-you stomach look as if your baby is due soon. I could go on – about belts which dig in painfully, tops that bag outwards between your breasts, short skirts which turn into not-skirts, evening wear which is so slippery that you have problems even staying on your chair… but I expect you’ve got the gist.
You’ve probably also noticed that models are always shown standing up. Think catwalk, not catsit. Imagine those glossy clothes catalogues, always full of beautiful, spritely people running across golden beaches rather than crouched behind a windbreak, or even sitting demurely on a groyne. Mm. All very nice, I’m sure, if you’re a long legged, peak of fitness model with no mobility problems. If, however, you’re an ordinary sort of shape and are a wheelchair user or at least spend most of your time sitting down – well, you know where this sentence is going, don’t you? The same rules of clothing just do not apply.
Now, I have an awful feeling that anyone who has met me is dissolving into hysterics at the very idea of me pontificating about fashion, my sartorial taste not being something I’m particularly known for, but bear with me. The fashion industry, even more than other industries, thoroughly sidelines people with disabilities – both in the designing of clothes and in modelling them Let’s face it, most people consider disability to be an imperfection, and fashion is hung up (pardon the pun) on perfection, even using technology to contribute to the illusion. Disabled people just don’t fit the image the fashion industry tries to promote.
A while back there was an attempt to present a different image with the reality television program Britain’s Missing Top Models, in which eight disabled women competed to win a photo shoot and an appearance in a top fashion magazine, but it is hard to see that show as much more than an interesting gimmick. Long term, will this one program make any difference to the fashion industry’s use of models? Frankly I doubt it. Disability Now magazine reported soon after that winner Kelly Knox is finding it difficult to get work – and if she is, it’s doubtful that any of the other women who took part are still involved in the front line of fashion.
There are companies catering for wheelchair users, such as WheelieChix-Chic and Tanni and Anni’s range of clothing at Rackety’s – and that’s great, but it’s important that this doesn’t create an ‘us and them’ approach, giving other companies the chance to say “Well, we don’t need to cater for people with disabilities: they have their own clothing stores.” I hate to say it, but whilst people with disabilities will shop at the big name, high street fashion shops, it’s hugely unlikely that there’s a whole stack of able-bodied people visiting WheelieChix-Chic, no matter how fantastic their designs are. Yet fashion shops for other niche groups – for example, plus size or petite clothing – not only have a visible presence on the high street but are also visited by people who fall outside the target groups. Why should it not be the same with disability fashion?
And it trickles down into public opinion. If you’re blind, if you’re a wheelchair user… okay, maybe I’m paranoid, but it often feels to me as if people expect you to dress – well, maybe not badly, but certainly with little attention to the latest able-bodied styles. (Also – and I have to face this point – there are few things in this world more style-free than an NHS wheelchair. I know: I have one!) To be quite honest, I have actually become more fashion conscious since using a wheelchair than I was before, in an attempt to change public perception. I’m not trying to ‘make up’ for the chair, nor distract attention from it: my wheelchair (ugly or not) has given me a quality of life I didn’t have before, and for which I’m grateful. It is simply another way in which I try to make able-bodied people think twice about their assumptions. Part of me wonders whether I’m not being true to myself by changing my clothing choices because of my chair, but on the other hand, disability activism is part of me, and a part of which I’m proud.
So, all ye involved in mainstream fashion, listen up! Whether you realise it or not, people with disabilities are in touch with fashion and care what they wear just as much as anyone else. We’d love to get the chance to show off your designs, so how about catering a bit more for us as well?