Many young girls take fashion cues from their Barbie dolls, and I suppose I was no different. OK, I was pretty different. I have spastic diplegic cerebral palsy, and when I was about 10, someone gave me a Share-a-Smile Becky.
Though I am mobile without the aid of a wheelchair (unlike Becky), my awkward gait is a noticeable marker of physical disability, and I have used walkers in the past and currently wear ankle-foot orthoses to gain greater balance.
No doubt, the giver of the Becky doll wanted me to have a toy that made me feel represented as a child with a physical disability. This impulse is positive, and Becky has helped girls who use wheelchairs see themselves in the world.
As I played with Becky, however, I couldn’t help noticing the ways her body and her clothes marked her as unlike my other Barbie dolls. Her knees were bendable, which, looking back, actually made her more mobile than my typically straight-legged dolls. At the time, her bent knees just emphasized to me the degree to which she belonged in her chair and not with the other Barbies.
Worse, she did not come with the satin party dresses and spiked heels that accompanied my favorite Barbies — accessories that telegraphed the exciting mysteries of adulthood. Instead, she wore pants and sneakers that seemed casual and boring. Combined, these differences worked to tell me that bodies with disabilities, bodies like mine, should be concerned with function rather than fashion.
This story is a part of a special Across Women's Lives series. Read more: Wear and Tear series: The women who make our clothes and How a sweatshop raid in an LA suburb changed the American garment industry and Her job at the mill bought her a new, better life. And, participate in our interactive: How fair is your fashion? Take the quiz.
One company currently trying to situate itself at the intersection of adaptive clothing technology and on-trend fashion is Tommy Hilfiger. Its Tommy Adaptive line began with children’s clothes in 2016 as a collaboration with the nonprofit Runway of Dreams Foundation, whose founder Mindy Scheier, describes the organization as “working with the fashion industry to adapt mainstream clothing lines for the differently-abled community.”
Hilfiger himself echoed this language in a statement about Tommy Adaptive’s decision to expand to include clothes for men and women: “Inclusivity and the democratization of fashion have always been at the core of my brand's DNA. These collections continue to build on that vision, empowering differently-abled adults to express themselves through fashion."
Disability theorist Simi Linton notes that terms like “differently abled,” “special” and “physically challenged” appear accepting on the surface, but are used more by able-bodied people than by people with disabilities themselves. Thus, they “convey the boosterism and do-gooder mentality endemic” of a paternalistic, privileged group helping a marginalized one without viewing them as complex human beings.
There is a marked difference between the language Hilfiger and Runway of Dreams use and the terminology around the Cerebral Palsy Foundation’s 2017 Design for Disability challenge, which is an equal collaboration between people with disabilities and design students. The foundation, along with design students from Parsons, Pratt Institute and the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, produced six adaptive lines, culminating in a fashion show. The models (who have various disabilities) were involved in the entire creative process alongside the designers.
In one video from the competition, model Jessica Yates talks about the conflict between how able-bodied people sometimes see her and how she sees herself: “I think that when you’re disabled, you don’t get to be rough-and-tumble as much as we actually are. We’re really, like, kind of badass.” Designer Dominique Kelly describes the clothes she makes with input from Yates and her other models as “trendy and stylish,” and says, “[The models] all want to look great. Who doesn’t?”
Such a spirit of collaboration and beginning from a place of commonality, rather than difference, seems truer to creating fashion that is inclusive and adaptive.
What’s good about the Tommy Adaptive lines, though, is that the company mentions how hard they've worked to ensure that the adaptive line looks as much like the designer's clothes for able-bodied children as possible and costs the same. Blogger Ellen Seidman says of the children's line, on her site, Love That Max, "Clothes like these will be a game-changer for our kids. Not only will they have more autonomy, they'll better fit in with their peers, given that the clothes have the usual cool, crisp, Tommy style."
Tommy Adaptive also says that Tommy Hilfiger and his wife have children with autism, so they’re personally connected to the issue. So, I want to make clear that despite the line’s use of outdated language, there’s a lot of positives there. They are trying, and mostly succeeding.
And there are others making good strides, too. Like Schuler Shoes in St Louis Park, not far from where I live in Minnetonka, Minnesota. When I first got my new ankle-foot orthoses a few months ago, they spent lots of time with me, listening to my style preferences and helping me find shoes that I liked that also fit over the braces. I bought these in extra-wide with removable soles and they match my jeans and look professional enough for work while still making me feel young and cute.
In my post- Barbie-playing years, I’ve gotten married, earned three degrees, had jobs in two different fields, and moved from the Florida sunshine to the Minnesota cold. All of these changes have made me consider my body’s relationship to my clothes and shoes in new ways. Balancing professionalism, accessibility and fashion will always be an issue for me, but I have learned that that balance will shift from circumstance to circumstance, and that’s OK.
Sometimes fashion needs to give way to function — I’m going to feel more like the Michelin man than a cute, young professional when I yank on snow boots big enough to accommodate my orthotics, but I’ll be less likely to fall down. On the other hand, I don’t need to feel guilty for skipping my AFOs to wear skinny jeans and my favorite heeled riding boots on a date night with my husband. Those choices can accommodate the many facets of my life.
Here’s a list, below, of some of the companies and designers that don’t sacrifice fashion in the name of accessibility — and also seem to recognize disability as both a spectrum of conditions and a single part of a person’s complex life. My list contains items for both children and adults, but it’s by no means exhaustive, so feel free to add to it in the comments of this article.
1. Cat & Jack’s adaptive expansion: Target describes its Cat & Jack line, established in July 2016, as “kids’ clothing with an imagination all its own.” The line, which was made with ideas and feedback from children themselves, lives up to that description. Its clothes come in bright, cheerful colors and display animals, rainbows and positive affirmations, all of which connote children as people with rich inner lives. Its adaptive expansion was released in October 2017 and recognizes the needs of a range of disabilities. The expansion includes pajamas and bodysuits with hidden abdominal openings for those using gastrostomy tubes, tagless and sensory friendly items with zippers that can be worn in the back or the front, and wheelchair-friendly jackets that open on the side to make it easier for children to dress themselves.
2. Converse Kids All-Star Easy Slip: When I was in kindergarten, I wanted nothing more than a pair of Chuck Taylors like my big brother’s, but they wouldn’t fit over my ankle-foot orthoses (AFOs). Lucky for today’s kids with disabilities, these classic sneakers now come in adaptive versions with elastic laces and easy-open flaps at the ankle, making them fit over a variety of orthotics and inserts much easier without requiring assistance. They come in “big kid” and “little kid” sizes for both boys and girls, making it easier for kids of all ages and abilities to play together and look cool doing it. Unfortunately for me, they don’t yet come in adult sizes.
3. Zappos.com: If, like me, you’re an adult who’s a little bummed about the above, online shoe and clothing warehouse Zappos offers an entire section of adaptive shoes and clothes for men, women and children from a variety of styles and brands. Subcategories include orthotic-friendly shoes, reversible clothes — good for people with limited mobility because they do not have a defined front or back, meaning that there’s less work flipping the garment around to put it on — and sensory-friendly items that come without buttons, zippers or tags. This convenient, searchable resource recognizes that people with disabilities are not monolithic and that we deserve an easy online shopping experience.
In fact, I’m considering treating myself to these fun Mary Janes for my birthday in a couple of months. The strap looks wide enough to clear my AFO hinges easily, and the pattern will give me some joy during early spring when I’m ready for the snow to melt for good here in Minnesota.
4. Bezgraniz Couture: If your taste is more glam, check out this Russian designer line. They did a fully adaptive show at LA Fashion Week 2016, and they don’t just design clothes. The company also funds an art festival and has an educational partnership that teaches designers the principles behind adaptive clothes. Their website states that their ultimate goal is the “rebranding of disability” in the public sphere. This holistic view is definitely encouraging.
Victoria Farmer is a writer and an employee at PRI.
Stay tuned for more of AWL's "Wear and Tear" series this week:
Wednesday: How the Rana Plaza factory collapse changed the global garment industry.
Thursday: Like mother like daughter — how two generations of Bangladeshi women view their work making clothes for Americans.
Friday: The city that H&M built.