Traverse City Record-Eagle

Body & Soul

May 5, 2012

Adapted in TC: Great fashion strides

I'm in fashion heaven.

Celia Mulder, my personal knitter, just made me a beautiful short cape and flower headband.

For my birthday this summer, friends and family will consign Celia and other knitters to make me booties, fingerless gloves, a hat, lightweight leggings, a purse, a wrap, some jewelry, a cowl/shawl or "showl "and even a cover for my phone.

I may also have Celia "yarn bomb" my wheelchair, backpack and cushion cover. Yarn bombs are those decorative knit or crocheted coverings on tree trunks and drinking fountains in Traverse City and the world.

This is a significant difference from the "bad old days" when it was difficult for people with health challenges and disabilities to find fashionable, workable clothing. Much of what used to be available was unattractive, utilitarian, dated and didn't reflect the individual style and personality of the person wearing it.

Stores and dressing rooms all used to be inaccessible. Clerks unknowingly urged people to bring back clothing that didn't work, not realizing how hard it was for people to shop in the first place. Whenever the word "medical" was added to any average piece of clothing or shoes, the price tripled.

When I began using a wheelchair as a teenager, many well-meaning people tried to dress me in ponchos and Velcro. With few exceptions, both were the antithesis of fashion.

Adaptive fashion is much better today.

First, we have many designers with disabilities creating custom clothing lines.

Second, we have an aging population that is demanding a sportier, more attractive personal style.

Third, today's fabrics are more adaptable — stretchy, lightweight, cooler or insulated. People are more willing to craft and create using these materials. Websites like Etsy abound and are wonderful places to get ideas and products.

Fourth, people have more affordable places to shop. Designers like Liz Claiborne can be found at TJ Maxx and their own outlet shops. Claiborne has a wide line of petite fashions that are really practical and attractive for people using wheelchairs. Additionally, there are lots of fun, classy thrift stores.

And fifth, the Internet has allowed people to shop all over the world. It's easier to find information on lots of different products and have them shipped reasonably.

My husband has learned to use a tape measure and measure my favorite items. He feels fairly comfortable buying clothing and shoes for me online.

Mostly, I love his purchases and return very few items. I also admire his thoughtfulness, courage and the intimacy this represents. The Internet is also a how-to place for consumers to teach each other how to adapt ready-made clothing for any disability, health challenge or assistive equipment.

Today, we have more models with various disabilities. I personally was part of an area fashion show that featured a wide variety of local designers. All of the models were different ages and sizes. These designers wanted the widest market for their beautiful items.

When I got married 30 years ago, I had a dressmaker my wedding dress. I didn't want to sit on a long train in the back.

Like any bride, I wanted a dress that highlighted my better features and was unique to me. Many grooms and their attendants use tailors.

Occupational and physical therapists often have a wealth of ideas for clothing adaptation, too.

At times, I've found using a personal shopper at a department store helpful. I stay in the dressing room while the shopper brings items to me. There is no additional cost and these professionals also have a really good eye for helping customers break free from their fashion ruts.

Today, one of the key things I'm looking for is attractive, functional business wear and comfortable garments that are easy to put on over my tender shoulders.

Thirty-six years of pushing my wheelchair has left me with chronic pain and weakness.

I'm also looking at shoes differently. Last week, I had one of my strapless shoes slip off when I transferred into the car. Because it was dark, I didn't notice or feel this until I got home. When I went back to where I started, the solo shoe was gone.

Hmmm, maybe my summer shoes are going to be scuba fins, after all.

Susan Odgers, a resident of Traverse City for the past 25 years, has used a wheelchair for 36 years. She is a faculty member at Northwestern Michigan College and Grand Valley State University. She can be reached via the Record-Eagle.

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