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Rolling into SS21: Accessible Looks From September 2020 Fashion Month

Audio: Read by the author.

With Paris Fashion Week having wrapped up in early October, that’s another fashion month in the books. Frustratingly (but predictably), adaptive fashion was a glaring omission, but that need not stop us from speculating wildly on the most wheelchair-suitable clothes gracing the runway.

Most mere mortals, disabled or not, aren’t going to be stepping out in haute couture, and designers aren’t generally designing runway looks with functionality in mind. Nonetheless, the design choices they make reveal assumptions about what makes an outfit good or desirable. Those assumptions are at least partially informed by functionality, which is in turn built on notions of normative, non-disabled bodies.

A quick note: as a wheelchair user myself, wheelchair fashion is the focus of this article, although adaptive fashion is far broader than just seated fit clothing.

Understanding Wheelchair Fashion

First of all, let’s talk about what makes an outfit wheelchair suitable. The obvious starting point is that clothing should look flattering when sitting down. Seated fit trousers are typically cut in such a way that they don’t have excess fabric bunching around the crotch, the way other trousers do when you sit down. Waistbands that don’t dig in uncomfortably when you’re sitting are also crucial. 

Length is a factor too, as things tend to ride up when you sit down and so a knee-length skirt becomes a mini-skirt, and trousers that might look fine standing show an awkward amount of calf sitting down. For shirts and blouses, they should be cut shorter in the front so they don’t pool in your lap, and longer in the back so they keep you covered.

For manual wheelchair users, long or billowy sleeves are out of the question – you need to avoid getting your top caught in or dirtied by your wheels.

Some other potential considerations for wheelchair users include:

  • Pockets that open and close in a way that stops things from falling out.
  • Garments that are easy for carers or personal assistants to dress you in.
  • Shoes that are secure enough to stay on your feet and grip your footplate.
  • Easy-to-clean fabrics are important, since sleeve stains are inevitable for manual chair users

And now, without further ado and in no particular order…

My Official and Very Scientific Picks for the Most Hypothetically Wheelchair-Suitable Outfits from Fashion Month 

ID: A model standing on a stone in front of a small waterfall and rockfront, wearing a full-length, sleeveless, stone-coloured dress. Image by Who Decides War via runway360.cfda.com/designers/who-decides-war/a-still-small-voice/#look-15
ID: A model standing on a stone in front of a small waterfall and rockfront, wearing a full-length, sleeveless, stone-coloured dress. Image by Who Decides War [x]

Remember all that stuff I said earlier about not wanting fabric bunching? Well, that’s all out the window now. This ruched piece from Ev Bravado and Tela D’Amore’s label Who Decides War elevates the rumpling accidentally achieved by sitting down to high fashion, and I am more than ready for it.

The SS21 collection, titled “A Still Small Voice,” takes inspiration from 1 Kings 19:11-13, which describes several natural disasters, before God appears in the form of sheer silence. In contrast to the rest of the collection, which evokes weathering and destruction through torn and frayed fabric, the outfit I highlight here is intact – perhaps meant to represent the divine stillness from the end of the biblical story.

Another wonderful feature of this look is the pockets. The little slit pocket above the waist, while dubiously functional given its size, is in the right position to avoid tipping its contents out while seated. That front panel pocket looks secure and sizeable, and possibly easier to access for those with limited dexterity!

ID: A model with a blonde fringe and hair in a low bun walks a white runway, wearing a black two-piece suit with a cropped, collared black shirt, black patent shoes and a black purse. Image courtesy of Fendi via fendi.com/us/woman/highlights/spring-summer-2021/spring-summer-2021-looks
ID: A model with a blonde fringe and hair in a low bun walks a white runway, wearing a black two-piece suit with a cropped, collared black shirt, black patent shoes and a black purse. Image courtesy of Fendi [x]

Milan Fashion week marked the final womenswear collection designed by Silvia Venturini Fendi, who took over after Karl Lagerfeld’s death but will be stepping back after a year as creative director of Fendi womenswear.

This outfit caught my eye because it hits a lot of the classic points for flattering wheelchair styles. The shorter top and longer trousers are well suited to the way clothes scrunch up while seated, and the blazer keeps one well-covered in the back.

What’s really inventive here is the short apron hanging over the front. In addition to adding visual texture to the outfit, it would cover any unflattering bunching in the front of the trousers.

This look is best suited to power chair users, since the sleeves of the blazer seem too long and tight for wheeling.

ID: A model with shoulder-length brown hair walks a runway, dressed in a form-fitting navy jumpsuit decorated with a red contrast stitch. They also wear a floor-length clear PVC cape with similar contrast stitch and clear platform heels. Photo courtesy of XULY.Bët via woman.es/galerias/moda/xuly-bet-paris-mujer-primavera-verano-2021?id=51199-3218467
ID: A model with shoulder-length brown hair walks a runway, dressed in a form-fitting navy jumpsuit decorated with a red contrast stitch. They also wear a floor-length clear PVC cape with similar contrast stitch and clear platform heels. Image courtesy of XULY.Bët [x]

I’ve been keeping a close eye on jumpsuits this year. I love how comfortable and functional they are: No waistbands! Zipped pockets! Easy to change in and out of! While there were plenty of cool jumpsuits on runways this September, one of the few that seems wheelchair-friendly is this one from Malian fashion designer Lamine Kouyaté’s label XULY.Bët. 

The typical jumpsuit’s downfall is that they tend to be particularly unflattering around the waist when sitting. This piece appears to have avoided much of that frumpiness with what looks like a fine, elasticised knit, which gives it better drape than the stiff woven material of more utilitarian jumpsuits. I’ve found that stretch is important for sitting, as clothing can then adapt better to a position that it wasn’t necessarily designed to be worn in.

The clear jacket looks too long to be comfortable in a wheelchair. I’d be concerned about it getting bunched up uncomfortably behind the wearer, or even stuck in the wheels.

ID: A model stands on a walkway leaning on a glass railing, dressed in a vibrantly patterned jumpsuit with a deep V-neck, a matching top which is fastened at the neck and hangs open, with 3/4 length loose sleeves, and black platformed peep-toe heels. Image courtesy of Naeem Khan via runway360.cfda.com/designers/naeem-khan/spring-2021-176
ID: A model stands on a walkway leaning on a glass railing, dressed in a vibrantly patterned jumpsuit with a deep V-neck, a matching top which is fastened at the neck and hangs open, with 3/4 length loose sleeves, and black platformed peep-toe heels. Image courtesy of Naeem Khan [x]

Given the billowing sleeves, this is another look probably best left to the power chair users, but boy, is it a good one.

There’s a lot of outfits I love from Naeem Khan’s collection, decked out as they are in leopard print, elaborate beading, and big ol’ stars, but this one stood out to me. The high, loose waist, seems to avoid some of our classic problems and the jacket works to hide any unflattering situations around the crotch area. While the jacket is a little longer than ideal, let me refer you back to how damn cool it looks.

There seems to be an impression that buying adaptive clothing means a person is beyond caring about fashion, which is condescending, ableist, and simply untrue. It’s disheartening to see amazing designer looks and know that your disability means you couldn’t wear them even if you had the chance. For better or for worse, that means it’s all the more exciting and inspiring to see outfits like this that are as beautiful as they are (potentially) wheelchair-suitable.

ID: A model stands straight-on to the camera with hands by their sides. Their head is turned to the left and cropped above the jaw and they have shoulder-length red hair. They wear a patchwork, asymmetrical crop top, with black peg trousers with a white-contrast stitch around the waist. Image courtesy of Preen via londonfashionweek.co.uk/designers/preen-by-thornton-bregazzi
ID: A model stands straight-on to the camera with hands by their sides. Their head is turned to the left and cropped above the jaw and they have shoulder-length red hair. They wear a patchwork, asymmetrical crop top, with black peg trousers with a white-contrast stitch around the waist. Image courtesy of Preen [x]

Thus far, I’ve mostly been writing under the assumption that good wheelchair clothing keeps one fairly well covered, because finding clothing that is comfortable and modest while sitting is a particular problem for many wheelchair users.

However, I’m sure that many readers may, at least on occasion, like to show a bit more skin, and with that in mind I present this top from Justin Thornton and Thea Bregazzi’s label Preen. The cropping seems like it could help an otherwise fitted garment avoid uncomfortable digging in around the torso, while the edgy structure keeps things fashion-forward.

One concern I have is that it might be difficult to put on, as it seems like it could require better dexterity and a wider range of movement if getting dressed alone.

ID: A model stands in a white room, wearing a sand-coloured crop top with 3/4 length, billowy sleeves, and a brightly patterned pair of high-waisted trousers with an attached pouch and zippers down the front. Their shoes are orange platform sandals. Image Courtesy of Issey Miyake via isseymiyake.com/en/brands/isseymiyake/collections/6818
ID: A model stands in a white room, wearing a sand-coloured crop top with 3/4 length, billowy sleeves, and a brightly patterned pair of high-waisted trousers with an attached pouch and zippers down the front. Their shoes are orange platform sandals. Image courtesy of Issey Miyake [x]

These trousers! Oh, how do I love them? Let me count the ways: first, the print is awesome . Second, the built-in bumbag is an obvious win for wheelchair users who have long been on board with their utility. Finally, the mini-apron that the bag is attached to should do a good job of hiding any fabric bunching.

The trousers would look shorter when sitting down, but since they are wide and straight it could be pulled off as a look, rather than an awkwardly short hem. 

In contrast, the top is significantly less wheelchair-suitable. In addition to the flappy sleeves, I’m concerned that it might be too short for comfort and the boxy cut could cause fabric to gather uncomfortably while seated.

This is Satoshi Kondo’s second Spring/Summer collection for Issey Miyake, and has once again moved away from the pleated looks that long defined the brand while maintaining the label’s focus on clothing as technology. This eye for the poetry in practicality is an ethos well-suited to adaptive clothing, and it would great to see an adaptive line from Issey Miyake.

ID: Model Aaron Philip sits in a wheelchair, wearing a jaw-length sea-green wig with styled red strands. They wear a one-shouldered patterned dress that falls on the knee, with pink and orange patterned tights and embroidered black platform sandals. The background is a digitally manipulated beachscape with patterned sand and floating trees. Image courtesy of Collina Strada via instagram.com/p/CFuNRA0AZ5J/?igshid=18axfvm1ued5

ID: Model Aaron Philip sits in a wheelchair, wearing a jaw-length sea-green wig with styled red strands. They wear a one-shouldered patterned dress that falls on the knee, with pink and orange patterned tights and embroidered black platform sandals. The background is a digitally manipulated beachscape with patterned sand and floating trees. Image courtesy of Collina Strada [x]

Last but not least, an outfit from Collina Strada whose wheelchair compatibility we don’t need to speculate on because it’s modeled by wheelchair user and all-round queen Aaron Philip!

The shoes don’t look secure enough for longer term wear, which is a good reminder that adaptive or non-adaptive, there’s a limit to the utility of runway looks.

All the same, this dress is a good example of wheelchair-suitable fashion. The flared shape of the skirt won’t bunch up when seated while adding a playful quality to the look. The asymmetrical shoulder compliments the dress’ bold pattern nicely, and the loose silhouette looks fairly uncomplicated to put on.

More of this please, designers.


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Samir Knego About Author

Samir (he/him) lives in North Carolina, USA with a bright green wheelchair and a little black dog. When he's not writing and editing for dubble, he edits for the narrative justice organization Pollen and literary magazine Decolonial Passage

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