The Fashion Accessibility Project opened a new exhibit at the Open Door Gallery in Boston in May, featuring unique clothing pieces custom-designed to the needs and lifestyle of a different disabled model.
Malia Lazu from the Epicenter Community worked with VSA Massachusetts and ArtsEmerson, among many other organizations, on the idea of making fashion for disabled people not only practical, but also beautiful. Many models expressed a desire for more flattering fashion options.
“Disability needs to be sexy, too,” said Nicole Agois with a smile, who works for VSA Massachusetts, an organization that works around the intersection between disabilities and the arts. As a musician, Agois knows the power of art when it comes to making a difference. She believes “fashion is not trivial.” Rather, it can be a statement.
“So much of what we put on dictates how we feel,” agrees Nicole Olusanya, who works with ArtsEmerson, an organization in Boston that helped with the initiative. Like Agois, Olusanya has a personal connection to this project. A former arts director at a Boston public high school, she helped put on a fashion show for disabled students who did not always feel integrated.
“It was an opportunity for all the students to feel recognized and seen…to have your fellow classmates recognize you as their peer was so powerful,” she said.
In Massachusetts alone, there are 1.6 million people with disabilities, including 20 percent of students in Boston Public Schools.
However, in terms of fashion, the disabled community can often be marginalized. Many face difficulties performing tasks able-bodied people don’t think twice about: buttoning a shirt, putting on pants, changing out of clothes.
One of the models, Cheri Blauwet, is a Paralympic athlete, as well as a doctor and a mother. Being wheelchair-bound, many characteristics of normal dresses are impractical, such as buttons. Jay Calderin, director of Boston Fashion Week, designed a dress for her that has magnetic buttons, and the train of the dress drapes against the wheelchair, making the wheelchair part of the dress rather than a barrier.
Another model, Keith Jones, gives public presentations, but he’s also a frequent traveler by airplane, requiring him to look well-dressed, but also comfortable. The designer, Peda Edouard, came up with a hybrid of a sweatsuit and a suit so it can be functional for Jones’s lifestyle.
Agois claims that some of the best feedback they’ve received is when someone says, “I’ve never thought about the barriers.” The initiative is sparking new conversations around disability, something that the organizers believe is a main hope of the gallery.
“In Boston, we’ve created a bit of a movement,” she said.