Having just written a story on how much the world around us has (and has not) changed since the passage of the American Disabilities Act (the story is out in this week’s Christian Science Monitor), I was thrilled that “Fashion Follows Form: Designs for Sitting” was still at the Royal Ontario Museum when I was up in Toronto last week. The show features the work of Canadian designer Izzy Camilleri who some years ago expanded her line to include clothes designed for people who use wheelchairs.
It isn’t immediately clear when you first walk into the show just what the curator is up to — or maybe I had just had a long day and was slow to get it. There was a tux for a groom with a jacket cut so that it would look its best when the wearer was seated, then a slinky evening dress for a woman who needed to be able to walk with grace while looking sexy, a 19th century outfit for women riding side saddle, and a top that best suited a bustle skirt… What?
What it took me a while to see was that the show is placing designs for people with disabilities within the flow of history, not as some specialized (do-good) eddy. The groom’s suit is just one among many examples that illustrates a core principle of fashion: the designer’s business is to respond to the needs and tastes of clients. When women wanted to ride horses but convention dictated they do so sidesaddle, designers came up with outfits that would give them the comfort and mobility they needed to control their horse while also ensuring their decorum.
So it is with clients who want to wear clothes they like while sitting in a wheelchair. The challenge there is simple — just ask any woman who has ever fussed with her skirt because she didn’t realize it was going to ride quite so high up her thigh or puff out quite so much at the stomach when she was sitting down; or any man who has ever looked down while seated and realized there was an inch of skin between sock and cuff; or anyone of either sex who has fidgeted in a plane because the back or his or her jacket was bunched up at the back. We all know that what looks and feels good standing up doesn’t always feel and look good sitting down.
That’s one of the facts of life Ms. Camilleri’s designs address. Notice in the leather jacket below that there is a belt in the back that you can’t see from the front — someone who needs support to sit upright can get it without sacrificing their style.
If you want to read about the designs that a bright group at MIT came up with for clients with disabilities, check out also Bryan Cronan’s piece in the Christian Science Monitor.