Many of us take clothes for granted. In the age of fast-fashion chains and weekly new collections, any occasion is a good excuse to buy a new pair of jeans, a flirty top, or some fresh kicks. But once you start looking closer, things in the fashion industry are not as sleek as fashion magazines and influencer posts would have you think.
Today we live in a world where pets have more fashionable clothing options designed for their bodies than PEOPLE with disabilities.
Cue Stephanie Thomas, disability fashion stylist and advocate. For 27 years, Stephanie has researched, championed, and implemented fashion-conscious styling for people with disabilities. She curates looks and wardrobes for VIP clients with disabilities and consults with designers and retailers on disability-inclusive fashion.
When it comes to fashion and clothing catering to those even a little outside the so-called norm, options are very limited. Well-made, stylish plus-size clothing is notoriously hard to find, despite the fact that the 65% of the US alone is considered “overweight.” When it comes to people with disabilities, the fashion and retail industries seem almost completely oblivious.
What is the first thing we do, when we get up from a chair or out of a car? We rearrange our clothing. But what if you are wheelchair-bound? What if you have a job interview and can’t button your shirt because you have limited hand dexterity?
Considering that globally 1 in 5 people identify as living with a disability, clothing that is adaptive or universal in design is not a niche market. In fact, people with disabilities, along with their families and friends have a joint income of $1 trillion globally.
Add to that the growing number of old and older people, and there is plenty of money to be made by creating and selling clothing that works for both people with and without disabilities, as Stephanie often points out. So why not create and adapt for all? Because as a society, we do not value people with disabilities– or their talent, need for comfort, self-care, confidence, and health.
Health is a concern when it comes to fashion.
Button, zippers, thick seams, and rivets can cause sores. Clothing that is too tight and shoes that do not fit well, especially on a body part that has limited or no sensation, can interfere with circulation. Other clothes are simply too difficult to put on for some people with disabilities.
Stephanie, a congenital amputee born missing digits on her hands and feet, grew up feeling the friction between what she could wear and what she wanted to wear. When she was looking to break into the pageant world during college, her pageant coach asked why she never buttoned her left sleeve. She had never thought about it before, but the answer was simple: because she didn’t have a right thumb.
That question, all the way back in 1992, started a long process of discovery. Eleven years of research later, she came up with the Disability Fashion Styling Systems and its three principles: clothes must accessible, smart, and fashionable.
Accessibility represents for how easy clothing is to put on and take off. Smartness is measured in how safe the clothing is from a health and medical standpoint, while how fashionable an item is, is determined by how it works for the wearer’s taste and lifestyle.
Nowadays, Stephanie consults with VIPs and everyday people, as well as brands like Macy’s and Zappos. After all, just because illness, an accident, or old age impacts your body, doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your dignity, style, or confidence.