Disabilities in Fashion

By Emma Eisenberg

“What you wear has a profound impact on your psyche,” Chaitenya Razdan, founder of clothing company Care and Wear told The New York Times. “It can make you feel like yourself again.”

But the power of clothes to give the wearer authenticity and confidence is a feeling often denied to the 53 million Americans living with disabilities. Mainstream clothes are designed for people who spend their days standing upright, have one specific kind of proportions, and whose hands can unfasten buttons as tiny as a quarter-inch, to name some of the ways the fashion industry dictates what kinds of clothes are widely available. The few clothing options out there for people who use wheelchairs or amputees are often designed for geriatrics, using dated designs and polyester fabrics. The perception is that physically disabled people don’t care about fashion or don’t need fashionable items that fit their bodies.

But this is changing, with visionary designers and people living with disabilities turned fashion activists leading the charge. From ALLELES, a Vancouver-based company that creates custom art covers for prosthetic legs and arms to a blog called The Girl With the Purple Cane that advocates for canes to be made more fashionable and sold in mainstream stores, those with disabilities have new and exciting choices about how to marry their physical needs and their personal sense of style. Care and Wear even makes sleeves and shirts for people with peripherally inserted central catheters, medical ports, and others requiring long-term intravenous medical intervention so they can stay fashionable and comfortable during treatment.

People who use wheelchairs often have different proportions and need different features from their clothing, a need that has previously gone unmet. North Carolina based company Magna Ready now makes shirts that feature magnetic closures instead of buttons, and ABL Denim, now available from Walmart.com, specializes in modern and fashionable jeans that feature a high waist and elastic to prevent them from drooping and easily-accessible knee pockets. More upscale, Chairmelotte makes “wheelchair couture” including two-piece dresses and shirts that button in the back.

This explosion of fashion possibilities is spreading slowly through other parts of the fashion industry, from fashion school all the way to the runway. Both Parsons School of Design students and the Fashion Institute of Technology have created collections of clothing for people with disabilities, including modifications for extra fabric at the elbows for greater mobility, a blouse with adjustable sleeves for amputees, and Velcro fasteners. During New York Fashion Week 2016, one Italian fashion company featured models with disabilities in its runway show–Shaholly Ayers, a congenital amputee, Madeline Stuart, who has Down’s Syndrome, and Jillian Mercado, with spastic muscular dystrophy.

Those at the forefront of this movement hope that by making bodies with disabilities more visible in the fashion industry and allowing items like canes and prostheses to be objects of beauty, it will lower the stigma against visual disabilities. Fashion and lifestyle websites like Cur8ble, which provide a platform for showcasing and reviewing fashion for people with disabilities, are also helping to change the narrative that disabled people don’t need or deserve fashionable clothes and show the world that there is a market for these products. Allowing people living with disabilities access to clothes that are both functional and fashionable is an important road to dignity, pleasure, and self-expression that is long overdue.

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