This is shaping up as a watershed moment for inclusion of people with disabilities in the fashion and glamour industries – a moment being shaped by the self-advocacy of wheelchair users, amputees and people with a wide range of disabilities – and the creative talent of a few cutting edge designers and industry insiders.
- Last December Zurich fashion houses replaced the typical mannequins in their window displays with new ones modeled on several people with disabilities who volunteered for the “Because Who is Perfect?” project. A video documenting the project has been viewed millions of times all over the world, generating tremendous accolades.
- This year the UK firm Models of Diversity teamed up with Global Disability Inclusion in the United States to bring models with disabilities into the mainstream.
- In February, Dr. Danielle Sheypuk became the first wheelchair user to model at New York Fashion Week.
- The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto is currently hosting Fashion Follows Form: Designs for Sitting, a major exhibit of renowned designer Izzy Camilleri’s “fashionable and functional clothing for the growing demographic of men and women who use wheelchairs.”
- And just last month, Sierra Sandison wore her insulin pump on her bikini bottom as she competed for the title of Miss Idaho (she won).
Lucy Jones – A Passion for Universal Design
In July, Parsons School of Design student Lucy Jones was looking for New Yorkers with disabilities to help with her research for the adaptive clothing she designs, and we had the opportunity to speak with her about her work.
A native of Wales, Lucy has been designing clothing since she was a teen, but when she came to live in New York to attend Parsons, she found a calling.
“For the first time I realized that there were hundreds of students all wanting the same kind of career in fashion,” Lucy said. “Then I was talking to my cousin Jake, who has epilepsy and hemiplegia, with paralysis down the left side of his body. On the days when Jake’s epilepsy is extreme, his mobility is very poor.
“One day I was talking with him on Skype because he was living in Dubai and I was here in New York. I asked him how he was feeling and he said, ‘The one thing I wish I could do is dress myself.’ I realized that I had never talked with him about this – people just don’t communicate enough about the practical effects of having a disability. So I said, ‘How do you dress?’ and he answered, ‘Oh, mum dresses me.’
“After that conversation I had a huge change of heart. I went to my professors and told them I wanted to work on clothing for people with disabilities. They really encouraged me. Parsons is a school for far more than fashion; it’s industrial design and photography, fine arts, philosophy, music, drama – it wasn’t hard to get support.
“Another thing that happened was that my mother broke her leg very badly and she was in a wheelchair for a year. Being with my mum I got to see the struggles for wheelchair users first-hand, and experience how our lives changed because of it. We realized that the house wasn’t accessible; we couldn’t go out. We were in London and mum would get frustrated by the way people would ignore her. Wherever we went people would talk to me and my sister instead of talking to my mum. I told my professors, ‘Fashion is a very iconic industry; I can use it to have an impact, to help educate people about disability.’ I knew then that this was definitely what I needed to do.”
While Lucy still has a year to go to complete her BA, she has already been recognized as an innovative leader in her field as the recipient of awards from the Royal Society of the Arts, the J.C. Penny Foundation and the William Randolph Hearst Foundation, among others.
Deconstructing how people dress
“Two years ago I made a video of myself dressing while mimicking my Cousin Jake’s disability,” Lucy explained. “I actually couldn’t believe the results because I didn’t know buttons were such a problem! The weight of clothes was also something I’d never thought about. I never realized how clothing in general is just really difficult.
“I got this idea of creating wide-open trousers. Jake told me, ‘It’s the moving into the trousers that is the problem.’ So I opened the trousers up and gave him more space and inside loops, which allows him to dress with one hand.”
To circumvent the difficulty of buttons, Lucy’s initial designs used magnets for closures. “I realize I can’t use them anymore,” she said recently. “I did a lot of research on magnets; wearing them is supposed to be really healthy but magnets do things like wipe the memory on your credit card and collect pins and other items. I won’t use Velcro because it wears out. I am developing an alternative – that’s one thing I’m working on right now.”
As part of her initial research Lucy interviewed Paralympic world champion swimmer Susie Rodgers and gold medalist Elizabeth Wright. Both women were born with congenital limb deficiencies and were able to explain many of the problems involved in getting into and out of clothes, but Lucy found she needed more of an ongoing partnership with the consumer she had in mind.
“To take my research and designs to the next level I needed individuals with disabilities to sit and work with me and I have that now. One woman who responded to my request for help with my research has spina bifida and spends most of her day in a wheelchair. As a result of her paralysis she also has bladder control problems and she asked me, ‘Why isn’t there any attractive, fashionable, absorbent underwear for people like me?’ So, now I’m going to design that. She is my fit model at Parsons and I will be working my designs around her, but many other people have come forward to help me as well.
“My teacher said to me, ‘Design a project that will change the world’ – that is how this started. I’ve have the best teachers. Their support has been amazing. They tell me, just keep doing what you’re doing.
“It’s all about connecting the dots. There are some fascinating things with the way clothes open and close. The way I make garments is so that anyone can wear them, including people in wheelchairs, women who just had breast surgery, or people with poor dexterity or who are arthritic. I realized – what is needed for clothing is universal design that incorporates not just fashion, but product design and architectural design. That’s what I am aiming for in my clothes.”