Women the world over know fashion already isn’t designed with the average person in mind. And if this is a problem for the average woman, what if you aren’t average? Trying to find the right clothes can be a problem for pretty much everyone, but it's compounded just a tad more with a disability. I am one such disabled woman who recently came to the painful realization that clothing and my body don’t mix. But unlike the average woman who knows from the outset that clothing will always be a source of frustration, I was fortunate to avoid this discovery until my early 20s. It's not that I didn't love clothes already, but I never felt a pressing need to worry about my clothing until I had left school and entered the workforce.
There’s an unspoken stereotype that the disabled are cared for, coddled, or are otherwise unconcerned with issues that affect the able-bodied. Those with invisible disabilities are often unaffected by the same issues as a person with dealing with limited mobility or physical disability. Finding clothes is an issue that makes me feel I share common ground with those who aren't disabled, yet opens up a completely different series of challenges the average woman doesn't experience.
The advent of disabled rights activism, business accessibility, and changing mindsets have allowed the disabled community more integration in society than decades past. But when something like finding the right clothing still feels like an uphill challenge, how can a person with disabilities ever not feel like an outsider? I’m a 28-year-old writer with osteogenesis imperfecta, a brittle bone disorder that comes, in my case, with short stature, a rounded ribcage, and a wheelchair. In the slot machine of life, I hit a jackpot for clothing issues.
My body comes with a variety of unique challenges that make clothes shopping increasingly problematic. While a non-disabled person might go to the store and pick out any old pair of pants, my short stature and small waist and legs require me to cut and hem any pair of pants I buy. Because I can't afford to professionally tailor all my pants, this leaves me wearing a lot of denim because it's easier to hem and hide. This is contrasted with my upper body which is “normal” by clothing standards, so I can defer to regular sizing. However, these clothes often cling in the wrong places thanks to my barrel-shaped rib cage, while my genetic “blessings” in the bust department mean average shirts can look like I'm auditioning to be a Hooters waitress. And though I hype my love of coats on social media, in reality I don't actually have the opportunity to wear them. Most coats narrow in the waist so a bigger size to accommodate my chest leaves me looking like I'm in a fabric covered box.
But when something like finding the right clothing still feels like an uphill challenge, how can a person with disabilities ever not feel like an outsider?
My lack of fashion options didn’t bother me earlier in life. I prized comfort over couture, a necessity for one who spends 100 percent of their time sitting down. My family will tell you the need to be comfortable was the reason I spent three out of my four years in high school wearing pajama bottoms and slippers (I was the only student allowed to go against the dress code and wear these).
When I was 14 I bought the first "designer" piece of clothing I'd ever plunked down money for, a beautiful jacket from American Rag. I wore it once, only to come to the painful realization that what looked great on the mannequin didn’t work for someone who has to use their arms to propel themselves. I found myself chronically pushing up the sleeves only to have them slip down and become streaked with dirt. The jacket lacked buttons or a zipper — and even if it had had one, zipping it up over my rounded ribs and bust wasn’t happening — and so would slip down my shoulders. After 15 minutes of frustration and fear that I’d ruin an $80 jacket, I took it off and shelved it. I eventually gave it to a family member a few years ago.
As a teen, I knew crop tops weren’t right for me, and not because of my mother who wouldn’t have ever let me leave the house in one, but because I presumed it wasn’t aesthetically pleasing to wear one with anything less than a washboard stomach. One of my biggest upsets as a teen was being unable to wear Steve Madden shoes, the ultimate in teen chic growing up. The heaviness of the shoes coupled with my small feet left me wearing the same pair of sneakers for a decade; in fact, you’ll probably still see me rocking my high school sneaks today. People never expected me to rebel, to wear clothes to mark my burgeoning femininity, because no one expected me to be a sexual person. And as social media proliferates our world, for good and bad, defining what’s sexy, it only becomes more amorphous for disabled women.
In my life, moments of rebelliousness and acting out were limited or non-existent. Even if I wanted to, I never had the chance to dress up with my Mean Girls' costume of animals ears and lingerie because there was an awareness that "that won't fit right on me." There’s never been a proper study of if and how females with disabilities deal with sexualization because mainstream society often ignores disabled sexuality, especially disabled women.
This is exacerbated by pop culture which reminds us of how the average young girl should dress, and rites of passage commonly dovetail with this. In Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, the film’s heroine rocks a prom dress fit “for a badass in a band.” Molly Ringwald’s homemade dress in Pretty in Pink reminded girls you didn’t always need a designer label attached to make an impact. Growing up I was reminded how prom dresses wouldn’t work for me at all as soon as I started trying things on. The lengths would drape too far over me — I wasn’t as worried about getting it dirty as much as I was about having it trip up my wheels. Nearly every dress I wanted was either too long, too constricting, or possessed “too much dress” (my mother’s term for the fabric being unwieldy). My prom dress ended up being lovely, but I never felt it truly reflected me; a reminder that despite being a teenage girl, I wasn’t the same.
Even if I wanted to, I never had the chance to dress up with my Mean Girls' costume of animals ears and lingerie because there was an awareness that "that won't fit right on me."
While prom was a long time ago, the same fashion issues still plague me. My high school sadness over finding the right prom dress has transformed into my sadness over the litany of wedding dresses I'll probably be unable to wear at the risk of being smothered in tulle. My American Rag debacle became me buying a Karl Lagerfeld dress in my assumed size only to find out that, like countless dresses before, it was too tight in the stomach and too loose in the bust. The problem has now become how I can possess a professional wardrobe with a fashion landscape physically unsuitable for me. What is popular in terms of slimming down women’s figures, and accentuating the body, like A-line dresses don’t work for a short girl like me. The cut is too constricting and is only more pronounced with seams commonly found at waist-level.
Designers are aware of the fashion demands for women who don’t conform to the size-0 mandates. Plus size is said to be an untapped market with a $20 billion dollar potential, which designers are attempting to get into; there is an uptick in disabled models being seen on fashion runways; and the rise of personal stylist subscription boxes like StitchFix and Ellie make it easier than ever for women to tailor their clothes to their changing bodies. It's clear there is an awareness and desire to open the door towards more accessible fashion — one that wasn't really there five or 10 years ago.
Only time will tell if the disabled will be factored into fashion decisions long-term. For now, it's important for people to educate themselves about the disabled in general. It's only through acknowledging the disabled as a community that change can be found. If a burgeoning fashion designer is aware of the disabled, they can hopefully hew their patterns towards our experiences. Until then, that Karl Lagerfeld dress remains a dream for me.