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Fashion & Disability: Blending Style with Function

By: Amanda Ray Filed under: Fashion

June 6, 2011

tshirts in a closet

After a diving accident left her paralyzed at age 14, Tiffiny Carlson struggled with depression while learning to live as a C-6 quadriplegic relying on a wheelchair. The injury imposed difficult physical limitations while also taking a toll on Carlson’s self-image.

“I didn’t think I could still be desired by boys, so as I went through my teens I didn’t even try to dress well, do my makeup, hair, any of that,” shares Carlson, now 30.


After graduating high school, Carlson went to a rehabilitation center to improve her independent living skills. That’s where she met someone who would inspire her to see the light after the darkness.


“I met a woman at rehab – a gorgeous paraplegic who worked there. She dressed beautifully, was married, had kids, drove,” Carlson tells. “I thought, ‘if she can do it, so can I.’”


She had found a role model and from then on decided not to let her disability limit her style and wanted to encourage other disabled people to do the same. So in 1998, Carlson started her own website offering wheelchair users fashion and beauty advice and dating tips. As time went on, her website morphed into a blog, Beauty Ability.


It can often be difficult for people with disabilities to find clothing that is both accessible and fashionable. While the primary focus in designing clothes for the disabled has been function, some say designers also need to focus on style.


“There are pattern-making books specifically geared to adjusting patterns to make garments to meet the needs of those who are wheelchair-bound,” says Karen Karuza, a Fashion Design instructor at The Art Institute of Philadelphia. While disabled people have encouraged fashion designers to jazz up accessible clothing, she says the industry is also addressing an aging Baby Boomer population that is accustomed to being trendy and stylish.


“I believe that as the Baby Boomers age, a segment of the fashion industry will need to serve them,” she offers.


Karuza adds that people with heightened sensitivity, such as those with Asperger’s Syndrome and autism, are another segment who needs attention. “As far as clothing, they are highly sensitive to labels, tags, and seam finishes,” she explains. “As fiber and textile technology grow, there will be more attention paid to those with sensory issues.”


Karuza says the next generation of fashion designers has an opportunity to move adaptive clothing forward, especially by making it more aesthetically pleasing. She teaches a fashion design course that includes the topic of Universal Design and how it is being applied to product, fashion, and graphic design for the aging population in Japan. “I think many of those design sensibilities could be structured to apply to clothing for disabled persons,” she offers.


Recently, the fashion industry has put the spotlight on people with disabilities. British retailer Debenhams has an ad campaign featuring Shannon Murray, a wheelchair user, and in 2008 the TV network BBC Three aired a reality show called Britain’s Missing Top Model, which followed eight young women with disabilities as they competed for a modeling contract.


Fashion shows featuring disabled models, such as Chloe Magazine’s “Dare to Change the World Fashion Showcase,” are also changing fashion’s perception of beauty. “Events like these bring us closer to spreading the message to the American public that disability does not equal unattractiveness,” Carlson says.


Although Carlson is excited about the recognition some fashion designers and retailers are giving to the disabled, she still looks forward to the day when she can find a variety of stylish adaptive clothing in mainstream department stores. Meanwhile, she will continue to enlighten others and teach the basics of adapting fashion for disabilities. “Dressing well does amazing things for your emotional well-being,” she says, “and can make you feel equal to all the walkers out there … guaranteed.”

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