Left out: Fashion and Disability

Today, I am privileged to host a guest post by Emma Thompson. Her post is about the research she is doing about people with disabilities and their clothes. Given my recent post about IZ Adaptive, it’s no surprise that I jumped at the chance to feature Emma’s story. If you’re interested in participating in the study, her contact information is at the bottom of the post.

Emma Thompson is a second year Master’s student in the joint Communication and Culture program between York and Ryerson University. Her research and thesis, Left Out: A Revealing Look into the Everyday Fashion Choices of Individuals with Mobility Disabilities, focuses on wheelchair users and their relationships with their clothes.

When I tell people my master’s degree research looks at individuals with mobility disabilities, specifically wheelchair users and their relationships with their clothes, the typical response I receive is “I never even thought of that”. So while this confirms that my research area is interesting, which I know it most definitely is, it also speaks to something larger: clothes for persons with mobility disabilities are rarely thought about as evidenced through the lack of them or how ugly they are.

I began my masters simply interested in why people dress the way they do, but this is a really nuanced and subjective question that I was not going to develop some grand answer to in two years – if ever. Being very familiar with most of the academic writing looking at personal dress, it occurred to me that wheelchair users, among many other physical disabilities, are not represented. With my degree in Fashion Communication from Ryerson and the experience it awarded me I began questioning many things including, why is it so hard to design clothes for the seated body when most people sit all day long. Who are clothes really functional for, and whose body looks like the dress form I was taught to sew with?

I can say in my experience and the things I have read in different textbooks in my undergraduate degree that clothes are designed for the walking or standing body. This seems very catwalk focused. I have my own qualms with fashion shows and their sense of spectacular spectacle, but what I find very interesting is that the clothes that are designed for day-to-day wear sometimes are not very functional even for walking. So who are we designing for? I would not have much trouble making the argument that clothing designed for day-to-day wear is restrictive to the body it is designed for – let alone the body it is not.

If I think about my own experiences working in the bridal industry, at Club Monaco and talking about clothes and what they mean with my friends, I have a pretty good idea as to what goes on in most change rooms: the general frustrations and insecurities people have with their clothes as an extension of their body. There is definitely an accepted and desired body type in the industry and it correlates with the one that is designed for in regular clothing merchandise. This ideal body type leaves many left out and this irritates me.

Speaking to my own experiences in wearing clothes, as I child my mother was always making these very utilitarian “tucks” in my skirts, and pants. I do sew some of my own clothes now, and I know the alterations I need to make to the pattern so that it will fit my body and not the dress form or the standardized sizing it was drafted for. I change the cookie cutter pattern to fit me. But certainly this isn’t always the case; I don’t have the time to sew all my clothes. My sister, who never walked, wore clothes differently. I remember my grandmother, who is a seamstress, made dresses for both my sister and I for our Aunt’s wedding, when I was no more than three years old. My sister’s was designed for easy donning and doffing as she had little mobility in her arms and legs. And yet the dresses we wore looked exactly the same. What I personally find most interesting when I reflect on the memory is how I never thought of my sister as disabled (even now), and the alterations she required in her clothes did not seem any different than the ones in mine. Yet, now I understand how important it was to be able to have my Gramma make her a dress like that and not be forced to make the clothes available in the store ‘work’.  

So somewhere in this series of experiences, my interest in the dress or clothes of everyday people, so to speak, became solidified and the focus on design for disability or design that is inclusive, began. I do not refer to myself as a designer, although I can design and sew quite well, but the notion that clothes are not designed inclusively angers and frustrates me. And so through a series of stitches and intertwined threads I find myself interested in the bodies that are left out. 

Left out because they are not the fashion croquis, which are translated into the real life fashion model. They are left out of mainstream fashion because they might be described as overweight, curvy in the wrong areas, lanky, short, tall, or not perfectly proportioned, for example. They may also be left out because they have bodies with different length limbs, amputations, arthritis, or curvature of the spine. And then there are bodies that are always seated and they are arguably left out because the design requires the body to be considered seated and not standing among other things. My research looks specifically at wheelchair users, but I know I could easily do four or five more studies looking at many more perspectives. I have heard amazing stories from the people who I have interviewed for my thesis research and if they are reading this –thank you!

I believe that the majority of people want to wear clothes that not only reflect their aesthetic taste, but they also want to wear clothes that are comfortable and look good on them – clothes that were designed with them in mind. This is why I have chosen to focus my research on getting dressed as a practice, the emotions that exist between our clothes and ourselves, and how we negotiate our identities with our clothed bodies. This is a discussion that is tricky for anyone, but I believe it is essential to consider the bodies that are left out. 
Thanks to Lene for allowing me to guest post on her blog this week and if you have any questions about my research, please contact me at: emmathATyorkuDOTca.

Thank you for writing this interesting post for The Seated View, Emma!



Annette said…
I can see how you could easily choose more topics in the same area. There are also problems for people who have trouble with buttons and fastenings. If you can't do up a button under stress, then tight clothing is not your friend.
It sounds like a fascinating topic.
Good luck finding people.