Nine years ago I was part of a BBCThree show called Britain’s Missing Top Model: a not-that-slight rip off of the modelling challenge America’s Next Top Model but with disabled women as the supposed ‘missing’ ingredient. There were eight of us with disabilities ranging from paraplegia, deafness, limb amputation and… my ‘neurological disorder mixed with connective tissue disorder and various annoying symptoms’- which they found wasn’t quite so snappy for trailers!
We competed against each other in a weekly mini challenge, where we were meant to learn something new, and a photoshoot where we were meant to put our new knowledge to use. For a show ostensibly about fashion and style it ended up being more about disability politics: who was more disabled and thus more excluded from the world of fashion?
After the show many viewers I met mentioned being astonished that disabled people were interested in fashion at all! Even random middle aged men who came upon me in WHSmith and despite claiming it was only their wives and daughters who had watched the show still knew the details of every episode. “But the fashion world is so looks based, why would you want to be part of that?” people asked.
“Disabled people can’t be stylish,” one girl said, “they shouldn’t try.”
To me, fashion and style are very personal things and don’t need to be dictated by others!
When I was a teenager in a wheelchair struggling with my new life in and out of hospital fashion helped me to claim my identity beyond being just ‘that disabled girl’. I’d always had a slightly eccentric style, preferring vintage dresses and old fashioned hairstyles over low-slung jeans and ironed flat hair (hello early naughties muffin tops, how we have not missed you) but being ill crystallised it. In hospital I’d curl my hair and put lipstick on because it made me feel more of a person and less of a subject. When I paralysed my arms I talked other people into doing it for me and when I was in my wheelchair I found a great way to tuck my big skirts and petticoats under my bum so they’d still look full but wouldn’t catch on the wheels.
Having an episodic condition I’ve learnt over the years that adaptability is key. I have certain clothes that are perfect for when my arms don’t work or when I have to wear a sling or use my crutches and I know the perfect nail varnish to complement my wrist splints- although getting my wife to apply it just to my nails is still a bit of a challenge! All of these clothes are, in my mind, very stylish. No matter how much I’m hurting, being happy with my outside makes me joyful on the inside- whatever has gone wrong with it this time!
Fashion comes and goes but style stays the same. The important thing is to wear whatever the hell you think looks best and sod everyone else. There are no shouldn’ts and can’ts when it comes to your own personal style. When I post an Outfit Of The Day on Instagram < https://www.instagram.com/jessicaoutofthecloset/> I never try to hide my hearing aids or my scoliosis (although most people don’t realise and think I’m just leaning sideways on purpose!) and if I have to use crutches that day they’ll make a graceful cameo appearance!
In this column I’m going to be sharing some tips, tricks and reviews of great brands that show being disabled doesn’t mean fashion is cut off from you- even if everything the NHS gives out happens to be beige… tip number 1: Don’t wear beige.
If you know any amazing brands or fabulous people who are striking a path for disability equality in the fashion world then I want to interview them! So get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org