The Quest for Fabulous Wheelchair Fashion

by Donna G. Albrecht on April 1, 2009 - 3:36pm

QUEST Vol. 16, No. 2
Erica Havens
Erica Havens models casual wear that draws the eye toward her face, not her wheelchair.

Admit it, there have been times when you’ve seen people go through makeovers and look fantastic standing there in front of the camera and you thought, “That’s easy! Try making someone look fabulous when they’re sitting down!”

Quest magazine challenged Clinton Kelly, co-host of TLC network’s “What Not to Wear” and author of “Freakin’ Fabulous: How to Dress, Speak, Behave, Eat, Drink, Entertain, Decorate, and Generally Be Better Than Everyone Else,” to come up with tips that would help readers look “Freakin’ Fabulous.”

So, where to start?

Bring attention up to your face

This might seem like a no-brainer, but just because you sit all day doesn’t make you immune to the siren-call of a vivid skirt or snappy shoes. Unfortunately, they bring people’s eyes away from yours and down to the chair.

Think of color, bold jewelry and a flattering neckline to keep their eyesup where you want them. Bold jewelry can be a big plus, but avoid using both bold earrings and a bold necklace. “They crowd the face too much,” Kelly says, “especially if we’re [looking at you] and not getting the full length of the torso.”

Choose wrinkle-free fabrics

Well yes, cotton will probably be one of the fibers you choose in the fabrics you wear. Like all natural fibers, cotton will breathe well. And also like other natural fibers including linen, it will wrinkle easily.

Surprisingly, Kelly says that “this is where polyester comes in handy, because a polyester blend can be very useful. It keeps the wrinkles away and is easy to machine wash.”

If you do want to highlight natural fibers in your wardrobe, consider wearing scarves of silk, linen, wool, etc., near your face, where they can both attract attention and announce your love for natural fibers.

Emphasize the waistline

“I like the idea of creating a waist — doing one color on the bottom and one on the top. It just breaks up the body a little bit rather than having you look so much like one mass, one torso … Even heavier people look better with a waist,” says Kelly.

But it doesn’t have to be your actual waistline. Kelly notes that for many women, an empire waistline that hits just under the bust line is the most flattering place to make the distinction. Just be sure to choose the garment carefully.

“An empire-seamed top can work many times. You have to be careful whether the fabric is too clingy under that seam or if there’s too much volume that can end up looking messy.” He notes that designers realize that women don’t want to look like they’re wearing maternity tops, so they’re doing simpler versions that add just a little bit of extra fabric to the top.

One thing both men and women absolutely must avoid is excess fabric bunching at the waist. No matter how wonderful your garments are, bunching will just make you look sloppy.

Erica Havens
Erica’s “dressy dress,” suitable for a wedding or prom, shifts attention toward her face, with a monochromatic look below. An empire waistline gives her more body definition.

Solve shifting shoulders and wandering neckwear

Have you ever wondered why the shoulders of shirts, blouses, and jackets take on a life of their own when you sit in a wheelchair? Jacket shoulders levitate mysteriously toward your ears; one shoulder seam of a shirt will sneak down your chest; neckties and necklaces hang surrealistically over shirts that appear to be on a whole different axis. It’s not your imagination, and there are things you can do to minimize these problems.

Kelly says the best answer — and it’s not just for people with disabilities — is tailoring. “It’s almost impossible to find clothes that fit [anyone] off the rack,” he says. He recommends asking around for referrals to a tailor and having clothes custom fitted. People who do alterations also may be found at department stores, places that sell men’s suits and dry cleaning shops. (There are differing levels of skill, so check them out carefully.)

If the jacket is bunching at your waist, Kelly advises, “You might need a shorter jacket. Taking length off a jacket is difficult, but it can be done.” If the shoulder seams won’t stay on your shoulders, a good tailor should be able to make alterations in the shoulders so the jacket fits properly.

Erica Havens
Adding a black jacket yields more of a “business” look.
Warning: Dressy shoes may not always be best for transferring.

He adds, “I guess I’m a little off-kilter myself. I have a thin shoulder pad added to my lower shoulder to have it balanced off visually. I generally don’t recommend shoulder pads all that much; I feel like the days of Joan Collins and Linda Evans have gone by ...” But he does make an exception for women who have narrow shoulders and a full bust, because shoulder pads will help to balance their look.

If your tie wanders across your chest, use a tie tack or bar to keep it aligned with the buttons. For necklaces, Kelly advises trying them on to see if you’re getting the pulled-together look you’re seeking. If a favorite pendant really doesn’t work, consider having it made into a broach and using it to hold a beautiful scarf in place.

A special note about shoulders to sports fans: A sports jersey with raglan sleeves will emphasize any weakness in your shoulders. So guys who want to maximize the visual impact of chest and shoulders need to check out styles that give a stronger look to the upper body.

Look slimmer

“I generally say there are two ways to make the body look longer and slimmer,” says Kelly. “One is to elongate the leg line and the other is to elongate the neck.”

First, the neckline. To create a longer look, think of any garment that produces a V neckline, from a button-up shirt with a collar to a pullover top with a deep V. If your first response is “not on my body!” Kelly offers two tips:

For women who don’t like the idea of wearing an open or low neckline around people who are standing, consider wearing a pretty camisole under the shirt to protect your modesty.

If you hate button shirts because they tend to gap, sew a snap or small piece of Velcro along the button line to close the gap and prevent problems.

Dusty’s suit was tailored to even out some asymmetry in his shoulders. An attractive tie and color in his shirt direct attention away from his chair, while a tie bar ensures his look stays nice and neat.

Get a leg up on fashion

If you’re using a wheelchair all day, the word that comes to mind when you think of your legs may be “frustration” rather than “fashion.” But by paying a little attention to the fashion aspects of your legs, you’ll be amazed how dramatically you can improve your physical image.

Kelly highly recommends the monochromatic look from the waist down so attention moves upward toward your face. He offers these tips:

Pant and skirt hems probably need to be adjusted from the lengths they would be if you were standing. “Hems on pants, [long] skirts, and trousers should cover the sock for a nice clean look — not flowing down past your shoe.” What if that sock peeks out anyway? “I would recommend matching the sock to the trouser to create a cleaner line.”

Choose shoes that are simple and match or blend in with the pants or skirt. For the most attractive results, avoid heavy, clunky shoes.

Can’t wear shoes? Leave those fuzzy bunny slippers home. Wear heavy, solidcolor socks that match the pants or skirt.

Accessories to the rescue!

Erica trying on earrings
Erica checks out some dangly earrings to set off her outfit. One lesson learned: Always shop in the chair you will be using when you wear the outfit. Due to the sling seat, Erica’s dress fit differently in the manual chair she used during the shopping trip than in the power chair she normally uses.

It’s no secret that the right accessories can make or break an outfit and the personal image you project. While we’ve already discussed shoes and jewelry, there are still a few critical areas to cover.

An attractive watch and/or bracelet makes an eye-catching fashion statement. If you wear jewelry that provides information to paramedics in an emergency, check out the organization’s Web site for fashionable options (for example, Medic Alert has a line of jewelry).

Can’t live without a purse? Kelly recomends an oversized clutch that can be tucked into your wheelchair between your hip and the side of the chair.

He notes that, “It’s not so chic for a man to carry an oversized wallet in his breast pocket. I would recommend you keep that wallet as slim as possible — maybe just a money clip with cash and credit card.”

So where do all those pictures go that you like to carry? How about on your phone? Many phones now have the capability to store and display (and even take new) pictures while still being very slim.

The seatbelt on your wheelchair is a critical accessory (unless you like kissing the sidewalk when your chair hits an unexpected bump). Kelly says that fashion-wise, you should do “whatever makes you comfortable.”

And the ultimate accessory? Your wonderful smile, of course! Knowing you look your best will make you feel great, and your smile will carry that message to everyone who sees you. And as Clinton Kelly would say, you’ll look “Freakin’ Fabulous!”

Donna Albrecht, a freelance writer in Concord, Calif., learned wheelchair fashion sense from her two daughters who had SMA. Many thanks to the J.C. Penney store at Tucson Mall in Tucson, Ariz., which was an enormous help in outfitting our models.

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