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Stylist Stephanie Thomas helps her clients find smart, fashionable looks and wants to make adaptive clothing more readily available.

When stylist Stephanie Thomas meets someone who tells her they didn’t realize people with disabilities have different clothing needs, she asks them a simple question: “What do you do when you stand up?”

The answer: “You adjust your clothing somehow,” Thomas explains. “You pull your pants up; you adjust your skirt. Clothing is designed for standing, so adjustments need to be made for those who can’t stand as much or at all.”

This conversation is familiar to me, as is a lot of what Thomas has to say. She’s a congenital amputee who was born missing digits on her right hand and feet, and I was born with cerebral palsy. Our disabilities are different, but we grew up with a shared stubbornness to make trends work for us, even if that meant stumbling or feeling pain. For instance, we both wore open-toed shoes for the fashion, but also to prove a point. “Someone said I couldn’t,” Thomas says, and that only made her want to more. “I always do what people say I can’t do.”

 Brad Swonetz for Zappos Adaptive
Styled by Stephanie Thomas, YouTuber @itlololove looks on.

As an adult, Thomas still has that stubborn quality. But now, she’s using that drive to advocate for herself and others.

It may not seem like it at first, but clothing is a disability issue. A shirt may be too hard to put on or take off, pants may have buttons or seams that cause sores over time, and fabrics may exacerbate sensitivities. And if it so happens that a skirt doesn’t have these obstacles, then there’s still a very real chance that it has yet another problem: It’s downright ugly. That’s why Thomas launched the Disability Fashion Styling System, which aims to teach clients how to shop for clothes that are “accessible, smart, and fashionable.”

Largely through consultations booked through her website Cur8able, Thomas has developed a case-by-case client list that includes everyday shoppers, celebrities, and brands. So far, she’s worked with names like Macy’s and Beautycon Media, and she’s also on the advisory council of Zappos Adaptive.

But Thomas’s mission isn’t just about finding the right clothes for people with disabilities. She’s working toward a future where the fashion industry is pushed to finally address these customers by providing a wider range of adaptable lines. She also envisions a time when the able-bodied public understands this topic better.

I talked with Thomas about our similar experiences and how she hopes that her work prompts necessary change.

Kelly Dawson

When did you become interested in fashion, and when did you notice that it has its limits?

Stephanie Thomas

Fashion has always been a form of expression for me. But fast-forward to college, when I wanted to participate in the Miss America pageant system. I was living in Kentucky, and they take pageants very seriously in Kentucky. At the time, my coach asked me, “Why do you never button that sleeve?” That’s when I noticed that I never did that, and it was because I didn’t have a right thumb. Her husband was a wheelchair user, so she said, “Have you ever thought about clothing for people with disabilities?” That wasn’t a thing for me in 1992. I had never even thought about it.

Kelly Dawson

So once your coach asked that question, was that a lightbulb moment?

Stephanie Thomas

No, not at all. Pre-Google, I started reading boxes and boxes of research from medical journals, psychology journals, and sociology journals. I read about clothing for people with disabilities, especially veterans, as well as how people with disabilities were viewed in a public space — how it was a form of dehumanization. As I continued to research, I started to notice the gaps.

Kelly Dawson

What other ways did you notice how your disability influenced what you could and couldn’t wear?

Stephanie Thomas

For me, shoes play a huge part in fashion, but I couldn’t wear open-toed shoes — not just for the aesthetic, but for the support. I wore sandals with socks, too, and that sort of thing.

Kelly Dawson

I always had an issue with shoes, too. Growing up, I would rather have them fall off my feet than miss out.

Stephanie Thomas

Absolutely.

Kelly Dawson

How does the Disability Fashion Styling System fill those gaps?

Stephanie Thomas

I founded the Disability Fashion Styling System in 2004, after 11 years of research. Between 1992 and 2003, I would talk to anyone who would listen to me about the need for clothing for people with disabilities. I called designers for a year and heard nothing, even though I knew there was a need. I didn’t have a plan, and I would say that this was a hobby that turned into a business — but it took years, even after 2004. My goal wasn’t to start a business; it was to solve a problem.

I had gotten into this habit of asking myself while shopping, “Is it medically safe? Is it easy for me to put on and take off?” As I started working with clients with disabilities later on, I tried to articulate that with them. I came up with three points: accessible, smart, and fashionable. Accessible represents clothes that are easy to put on and take off. Smart represents clothing that doesn’t cause harm. For instance, clothing with rivets or thick seams when you’re a wheelchair user can cause sores. Fashionable represents whether it works with your lifestyle, your body type, and your mood.

Kelly Dawson

Since there are so many different disabilities that fall on the spectrum, how are you sure that those three principles — accessible, smart, and fashionable — can answer to everyone?

Stephanie Thomas

Because I’ve been using it since 2004. I’ve been working with people with different disabilities, and as we shop, I teach them to know their measurements and their wants so that they can self-advocate. This styling system is so general that it’s easy to remember.

Kelly Dawson

Can you provide examples for what they need?

Stephanie Thomas

Well, there are a lot of examples, so I’ll just provide a few. For people with dexterity challenges, you need to make sure that the closures are easy to get into or that they have options without closures. Or if someone has problems lifting their arms above their head, you need to create options with dolman sleeves or drop sleeves. If someone has a seated body type, you need to make sure that the pants are designed for sitting. So, that it’s made from a natural fabric, has a high back, has repositioned pockets and crotch area, and longer legs.

This process seems so simple but can be so powerful, because the shopping experience can be overwhelming.

Kelly Dawson

It’s so true. I definitely find myself looking at clothes thinking, “How can I make this work for me?” instead of, “How is this piece of clothing good for me?” The styling system definitely makes it easier to keep safety and well-being at the forefront.

Stephanie Thomas

All I can tell you is that this works — as long as you check all three boxes. I don’t know about you, but when I’m shopping for shoes, I’ll think, “Okay, it’s easy to take on and off, and I love it!” But then I’ll leave out the part that makes it smart. I’ll take it home and it sits in my closet.

Kelly Dawson

Oh, that happens to me all the time. I have shoes that I could walk in while in the store, but then after I get them altered to fit my needs, I’m not able to wear them down the street. But I also tried on shoes that were easy to take on and off, and were smart, but were also hideous.

Stephanie Thomas

Yes, yes! It’s hard, I know.

Kelly Dawson

So walk me through how you get the word out. Do you go to any manufacturers?

Stephanie Thomas

No. I stopped going to them in 2004, when this all started. If you have to convince people to work with you, they’re not going to get the message. If people come to you, they’re ready for the message.

I’m a business, and I book other businesses through my site Cur8able. Through those bookings, I speak, I style, and I consult — such as on an advisory board, and especially with brands. I also create content on that site, and I’m working on a textbook called Fitting In: The Social Implications of Dressing With Disabilities. It’s not intended to be exhaustive, but it’s intended to introduce people across disciplines to what it’s like to think about disabilities. Have you ever considered that people without disabilities are always asked to have this understanding about disabilities but they’ve never been taught? We live in a world where people are told from an early age not to stare, or not to look at us. And when you look away, we don’t exist.

Kelly Dawson

I think about this whenever I meet someone new, actually. I have a friend who once said, “I didn’t realize how many obstacles there are in the world until I started walking around with you.”

Stephanie Thomas

Our world can be very different. When someone enters into my life, I still worry about being a burden, or that I should apologize for my disability. Even if I don’t see myself as a victim.

Kelly Dawson

Well, the fact that I can very much relate to that feeling, too, makes me think that there are some bigger issues at play here — about how disabled people are taught to see themselves as less than, and how the larger society isn’t taught to see us as equal. Which is why your work is so important, because it makes it easier for disabled people to be comfortable in public and disrupt that balance.

Stephanie Thomas

I style to power and to educate. Styling lets you see the person before you see the disability.

Kelly Dawson

What are some misconceptions around clothing that perpetuate stigmas?

Stephanie Thomas

I start with disability: What it is and what it isn’t. Who we are, and who we’re not. One in five people in the world have a disability or know someone with a disability. We’re one of the largest minority groups in the United States alone, and the last reported numbers of people with disabilities were over 57 million people. And the World Health Organization said that people with disabilities, their families, and their friends have upwards of $1 trillion in disposable income. The perception of a fashion customer with a disability as being in a niche market is wrong. We’re not a monolith, and this is not a niche market.

Kelly Dawson

The one-in-five statistic always stands out to me, too. But the disposable income should mean something, aside from everything else.

Stephanie Thomas

This is about attitudes, about who is valued. This is about the industry deciding who the fashion customer is. You can’t design for someone you don’t value.

People give more value to intricate designs for dog clothing than adaptive designs for people with disabilities.

Kelly Dawson

How can someone who doesn’t know much about disability begin to educate themselves?

Stephanie Thomas

There are a lot of people within the industry who need to do their market research. Designers should ask themselves, “Who do I want to design for?” You can’t dress or even appeal to someone you don’t value — as a human being, and as a customer. For others, if you do a Google search of “disability and fashion,” you’re going to get some traction now, whereas even three years ago you may not have. Listen to and read about the disabled community, watch TED talks about disability, and ask questions.

Look at your own biases, too. What attributes are you assigning to people with disabilities? You need to be honest about your biases so that you can learn what you don’t know. Feel that vulnerability, and get over it. This is not about you.

Kelly Dawson

That’s great advice.

Stephanie Thomas

Last thing — I applaud brands who are bringing people with disabilities into their photo shoots, but I need to say this: We are not props. Stop putting people with disabilities in clothing that doesn’t honor their bodies. Because if you have an ad of a wheelchair user in your clothes, but you don’t sell clothes for wheelchair users, then you are potentially hurting that person. Sure, it’s diverse. But get it right so that you can have that customer. Take the time to do it right.

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Author: Kelly Dawson


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