Life in a wheelchair comes with a unique set of daily challenges – like the difficulty of embracing fashion, writes Alex Taylor
My understanding of the complexities around disability and style began at an early age. Six-years old, to be exact. A lady politely came up and asked my mother where she could buy red shoes like mine. Of course, she didn’t know they were special orthopaedic shoes made to support my feet. She also certainly wasn’t prepared for my then innocent face to reply “you can’t, you have to have brain damage to get these”.
Aside from being proof of my innate political incorrectness, the incident highlights how disabled people are pressed into believing that style must be sacrificed at the hands of practicality. The implicit acceptance is that the main focus should be on surviving, not living well and looking good.
Of course many disabled people, whether wheelchair users like myself, amputees or those recovering from a stroke, push beyond this to fulfil their sense of self, building strategies to ensure practicality doesn’t trample personal fashion sense.
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This can only be done with a mindset that recognises that sitting in clothes primarily made for people standing up is never going to be something that doesn’t require adjustment. As Rae Surtee, a 35-year-old wheelchair basketball player and model living with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), puts it “I don’t think my disability really alters what I wear too much. Before MS I would wear the same kind of things, I just wear them slightly differently now”.
An appreciation of proportion is central to solving the puzzle. Surtee explains, “when you’re sitting down T-shirts tend to ride up at the back, and the same if you’re wearing trousers that don’t extend far enough to cover foot straps for instance. To manage, you have to compensate with larger sizes.”
“When I push in my chair I need freedom to propel properly – this means not getting clothes too tight, items that offer lots of movement in the arms.”
The sizing trick is something I follow, painfully aware that sitting can make your stomach look bigger than it actually is (at least that’s what I tell myself).
Purchasing larger sizes also makes clothes easier to put on and take off. A useful benefit for someone like me, who manages to turn this supposedly easy exercise into something akin to escaping a straitjacket. For this reason I also refrain from wearing too many layers, and steer clear of items with lots of buttons. (I once made the mistake of buying jeans with a button fly. Imagine the scene: you go out for the night, use the men’s toilet, and then find that you just cannot do up your zip. Who do you ask for help: a guy in the loo you’ve never met or the girl you’ve invited out for the first time?)
Strategies like these are crucial to avoiding difficult situations and ensuring disabled people remain free to pursue whichever style they fancy – aside, perhaps, from the drainpipe jeans I got myself stuck in as a teen.
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But this attitude is not enough to counter the biggest challenge for wheelchair users. Suits. Buying a size bigger is no good, because the dinner jackets instantly take on an undesirable, ’80s shoulder pads gone wrong’ look. The only solution is bespoke tailoring, a service Charlie Allen has provided to disabled customers for over 30 years.
Allen attributes his success to fitting the sitting position rather than body measurements. He says the “main priority” is to get the shoulder line right.
“With a lot of these jackets, the shoulders are too square” explains Allen. “For a normal person walking up and down, who would not normally be sitting, the back and neck goes very square when seated, so we take the padding out and make the shoulder as soft as possible.”
“For customers in a wheelchair, the full length of a normal jacket sees it crease quite a lot, so we cut the jacket short at the back to avoid this. The front is also very smart – we cut the round so that it will fits nicely in to the lap.”
The trousers are likewise made longer and elasticated to be “shorter at the front and higher at the back”, says Allen, “so you get a nice, neat look.”
The value of these strategies is not just the neat look they ensure, but the impact this has on allowing a disabled person to feel comfortable and express themselves, whatever their disability.
In truth, disabled people can feel more pressure to look tidy. The cool “messy” look on an able-bodied young man tends to be perceived as unkempt if you are a wheelchair user or have an obvious disability. Even as a model, Surtee agrees: “When I go out, I know people will be looking at me more due to my chair, so I am keen to look my best and show them who I am.”
“The public have never traditionally seen someone with disability presented in a fashionable, daring manner. People with disabilities don’t generally ‘do’ fashion shows.”
Fortunately, models like Surtee and Jack Eyers, an amputee who walked the runway at New York Fashion Week this year, are helping to change this. Both are represented by the Models of Diversity agency, an organisation that helps to push disabled models for inclusion at major fashion events – instigating change within the fashion industry.
Eyers has even found his involvement in fashion has changed his outlook toward his own disability. “I used to hide my leg and wear two pairs of trousers so people couldn’t see it, but now I live in shorts. I like to think of my leg as a fashion accessory!”
This desire to remain stylish despite disability is also being given a voice in wider society. Fiona Jarvis runs Blue Badge Style, a website providing people with disabilities with information and advice on how to maintain a sense of style whatever the disability and whatever the style.
In Fiona’s words, “your body may be beyond your control but your sense of style isn’t, in fact it becomes more meaningful and essential in retaining your dignity and happiness”. A lesson we can all learn, male, female, disabled or otherwise.
I’m off to try those drainpipes again.
By Alex Taylor