Disabled models take catwalk at New York Fashion Week for FTL Moda (Photo: Getty Images)

FASHION NEWS 

I use a wheelchair. I also like fashion. But dressing with a disability isn't always straightforward

It matters when the fashion world consider the sartorial implications of disability, says Frances Ryan

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By Frances Ryan on

Typically, getting dressed does not require any sort of method, but getting dressed with a disability usually does. 

This isn’t simply about the intricate, literal mechanics of putting clothes on if you can’t move, see, or feel as you need. It’s about the clothes you meticulously choose to fit your body; perhaps differently shaped, or with hands or muscles or eyes that rule out certain styles entirely. It’s the – sometimes strengthening, sometimes fragile – way it affects how you feel. It’s about the shops you’re aware you can’t get into because of the steps or your lack of energy, and the relative ease of online retail. 

It’s the barriers and it’s the ingenious solutions. 

And those ingenious solutions are what designers Teatum Jones are set out to find with their latest collection. 

The award-winning team, comprised of Catherine Teatum and her co-designer Rob Jones, already made a stand with their LBGTQ+ inspired collection launched at the beginning of the year. Now they’re looking to collaborate with British Paralympic Team to assess the impact of different disabilities – and the way fabric makes limbs feel, for instance – and develop a collection for those who have the altered proportions that come up with being always (or usually) seated. “We want to develop able-bodied and disabled ranges that will cross over," Rob said. Though the collection "as a concept is at its earliest stages" Catherine Teatum told me, the pair are "very keen to learn more about it and bring it to life." 

I use a wheelchair and, at aged 31, I always have done. I also like fashion. I’m the first to scan the Net-a-porter sale, to oddly stroke beautiful material, to equate perfecting an outfit with simply leaving the house. Reading about Jones' work, it struck me how little I’ve ever thought about disability and dressing together. Or rather, I realized that each thought – how to hitch tights up, what length skirt to wear, what coats are out of bounds – becomes so engrained that I don’t consciously think about something I actually think about several times a day. 

To be awkwardly turned away by a shop assistant because a dressing room has no seat or is too small for a wheelchair is a sinking reminder of how much of the world sees you

When I asked other disabled women this week for their experience with clothes – how they dressed, what they bought, how they felt – each spoke in a way that was strikingly personal. 

Some talked of a plan of action. Clipping socks together with clothes peg, or using safety pins to distinguish between similar colours, when a visual impairment means choosing what you’re putting on is a challenge. Or buying clothes that slip on and off easily because motor skills, co-ordination, or a lack of strength makes fastening buttons and zips impossible. Bras, in this context, are a fiddly menace. Crop tops, sloggi bras – that you can get over your head without back fastening – or (for smaller cup sizes) simply going without, are saviours. 

Others, particularly women who weren’t born disabled, spoke of a sense of loss as their relationship with clothes changed – both literally losing items from their wardrobe and, in a deeper way, a part of their identity. “I fondly remember delectable black kitten heels, lined in lavender leather, leopard print suede kitten heels with a diamanté buckle,” Annie, a 61 year old with MS, told me. She had to give away all her high heels a decade ago when she could no longer balance on them. “I now wear clumpy boring flats from Aldi,” she added.   

Nicole, a forty year old who’s bedbound with M.E, told me how she puts a night dress on and due to a lack of energy, it has to stay on for several days. “I actually bought some jeans recently and feel quite emotional about them as they represent a normality that I don't have any more,” she says. “They sit in the drawer for when I'm well enough to leave the house.”  

A pair of jeans can have meaning. Disability and dressing is often mundane and practical: repeatedly laddering tights from the Velcro on wrist supports for crutches and splints, or trawling for fashionable elasticated trousers because a hard waistband hurts your abdomen. But, as much, it can connect to something deeper: putting on weight from medication and learning to like yourself – and get a new wardrobe – based on your new size, or finding a way to “feel feminine”, as one woman with a feeding tube on her stomach and a leg brace put it me. 

Anyone who has ever felt braver with a red lipstick on or sexier wrapped in a favourite dress can identify with the emotion attached to how we dress ourselves. How we shop can mean as much. As I grew up, the shift to online sites opened up possibilities but it feels less than liberating when it’s your only option. To be awkwardly turned away by a shop assistant because a dressing room has no seat or is too small for a wheelchair is a sinking reminder of how much of the world sees you.  

Carving out a way to be yourself – in all its difference and occasional difficulty – can start with getting dressed in a morning. 

@DrFrancesRyan 

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Disabled models take catwalk at New York Fashion Week for FTL Moda (Photo: Getty Images)
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