The Joy of Shoes that Fit: Fashion and Disability

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I have never owned a pair of truly pretty shoes. All of my shoe purchases are generally based on whether the shoe works with my various orthotics or if I’m going for a dressier shoe (because I have yet to find a pretty shoe that works with even the least invasive orthotic) will they stay on my feet. This has left me with runners for day to day and casual (almost exclusively black) Mary Janes for when I need to dress up.

I have been wearing some version of this type of shoe to every formal event for my entire life.

I have been wearing some version of this type of shoe to every formal event for my entire life.

Shoes are the stereotypical feminine obsession. Chickflicks are full of characters who either have copious amounts of shoes or are lusting after a particular pair of inaccessibly expensive pumps in the store window. Brands like Jimmy Choo, Chanel, Miu Miu and Gucci are commonly mentioned with reverence. While these fictitious portrayals often exaggerate reality, there is a very real social expectation that women will wear pretty shoes.

It is not at all uncommon to see women wearing heels or ballet flats for everyday activities. These shoes are either notoriously uncomfortable (heels) or provide little support for the foot (flats). Stylish shoes are not only meant to be worn to special events or occasions but are often expected in day to day life. Some employers expect their female employees to wear heels. Though there is push back against those expectations.

Shoes are a fashion statement and it is very common to see women going their entire day wearing ballet flats or heeled boots.

I can’t wear either.

Day to day I am either using either my AFO

My AFO

My AFO

Or if I don’t know how many stairs I will encounter a pair of shoes that can accommodate my custom orthotic that compensates for the difference in my leg lengths

I had to get D width shoes to accommodate my AFO despite my B width feet and the fact that I only use an AFO on my feft foot. When I am just using an orthotic lift, I can get shoes of the appropriate width but my left foot is significantly smaller than my right so no matter how I shoe shop I always have one foot that is swimming in to much space (I can’t afford t buy two pairs of shoes to accommodate the difference). With runners, it is generally possible to tighten the shoe sufficiently to make a single pair work.

When it comes to formal or just more dressy events I have to forgo orthotics for the duration if I don’t want to have clunky runners paired with my nice dress. I am ok with this as these events are not frequent. One day or a few hours without orthotics every month or so is manageable–I rebelled when my job at a department store required black dress shoes and wore black runners instead–but finding dress shoes that fit is its own kind of hell.

I can’t wear heels (I would end up breaking an ankle) and flats just fall off my smaller foot. So I have been stuck with Mary Janes (flat shoes with an ankle strap). Even then I run the risk of rubbing the ankle of my smaller foot raw if the strap isn’t snug enough. Add to that the fact that my smaller foot has for the last few years been swelling in hot weather and dressy shoes are just a recipe for pain and discomfort.

So when my sister asked me to be a bridesmaid at her wedding this summer, my main wardrobe concern was the shoes. Luckily she left the choice up to the individual rather than restricting style or colour which would have made shopping a nightmare. It’s hard enough finding serviceable shoes as it is without adding restrictions. Although being unemployed I was dependent on my mother to purchase the shoes for me (she is a notorious bargain hunter).

Ever since I discovered the online marketplace Etsy, I have been obsessed, though generally from afar. I was particularly interested in the shoe makers who offered custom fit shoes. They have always been well out of my price range but I coveted them.

For the auspicious occasion of her daughter’s wedding and my role as bridesmaid, my mother (with much trepidation) agreed to buy me a pair. I selected a cute pair of oxfords. They are dressy enough for the occasion and cover enough of my foot so that the leather won’t dig in if my foot starts to swell at my sister’s outdoor wedding.

I sent them my foot measurements and e-mailed them scans of my feet so that they could tailor the shoes to my individual feet.

Just over a month later after a minor postal hiccup (the delivery person tried to deliver the shoes to a house across the street), they arrived and they are amazing.

Shoes as they appeared in the box

Shoes as they appeared in the box

Shoes with sole visible

Shoes with sole visible

For the first time in my 28 years, I have a pair of shoes that fit me perfectly (you can’t see the size difference in the photos. They are also the prettiest shoes I have ever owned.

me wearing the shoes

me wearing the shoes

I can’t fully explain how good it feels to finally have a pair of pretty shoes that match my personal style, rather than a pair that fits poorly and only barely qualifies as a dress shoe.

These will be my go to shoes for formal events, job interviews or whenever runners just won’t do until they fall apart (which I imagine won’t be for a while because they are really well made) or the shoe industry clues in that disabled people want pretty shoes too and that maybe, they should start catering to our needs instead of making us constantly make do with what little is available to us.

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Fashion and Disability: Why are Adapted Bras so Hideous?

My relationship to fashion is a rocky one. Mostly due being autistic. As a kid I was extremely sensitive to the texture of clothing. If I wore something that was even slightly uncomfortable, I would get so stressed out that I felt like I was physically turning inside out. Consequently, buying me clothes was a major pain for my mother. We would have to go to multiple stores just to find a single outfit. An outfit I may only wear once because its texture and feel might change after it was washed.

Did I mention that I wasn’t diagnosed on the autism spectrum until I was 18? So my mother just thought I was being unnecessarily difficult. I got a lot of lectures about clothes and how frustrated she was about my behaviour towards my wardrobe. Add to that my hemiplegic cerebral palsy which left me unable to tie my shoes until I was nine and difficulty with zippers that lasted well into my teens.

Consequently I was a very unfashionable child. It wasn’t that I was unaware of fashion, I simply had to be completely ambivalent to it in order to be comfortable enough to function. I wore a lot of oversize t-shirts and pants with elasticized waists. Any article of clothing that was even remotely restrictive was impossible. I never wore denim or anything lacking in stretch. Basically, I wore a lot of track suits of the 80s variety.

track suit

I had so many of these. This became an issue at my Christian Preparatory High School where track suits were considered unprofessional and were against the dress code. I had about 5 outfits that were comfortable that barely passed dress code muster that I just constantly recycled. I have a much more diverse wardrobe now. I’m not sure if I have better coping skills or if they just put lycra and spandex in everything now, rendering clothing generally more comfortable (I also love the trend of tagless shirts, whoever came up with those is a genius who should be sainted). One article of clothing I continue to have difficulty with however are bras. Bras cause difficulties for both my disabilities. I lack the necessary hand dexterity to actually put them on properly. Whoever invented the hook and eye system most commonly used as a bra fastening probably never has to use it and certainly didn’t have to use it one handed. I have also found that I find bra clasps against my skin to be extremely uncomfortable to the point that it impacts my ability to function socially. Yet there are so few alternatives for people with either hypersensitivity or limited dexterity. While adaptive bras so exist, they were absolutely not designed with fashion consciousness in mind. Silvert‘s has a small selection that include these,

silvert bra

silverts 2

Those two bras are pretty representative of what is marketed as adaptive bras. You can find similar products from other adaptive clothing retailers.

They are not the sort of bra that can be worn under a low cut top or even a tank top. They are also in no concievable way sexy. Pretty bras it seems are the sole domain of people with more dexterity than I have. It also just reinforces the idea that disabled people should not be sexy. The thing is, it doesn’t have to be this way. It is entirely possible to make a pretty (or at least more fashionable) accessible bra without resorting to frumpy. The problem is very few companies do. A while ago I was fortunate enough to find the Bonds Pull Over Bra (pictured below)

BONDS-Pull-Over-Bra

I bought three. They offer good support, have adjustable straps and look pretty much exactly like a normal bra you would find in a store. They also don’t have clasps of any kind so are easy to get on and are comfortable. They have also been discontinued and are no longer available. I’m not sure why, the Bond’s website was full of rave reviews for the product. So while you can’t get them anymore they do prove you can make a supportive pullover bra. I wish they would bring it back and that other lingerie retailers would start making similar products in different styles. Most other pullover styles are bralettes which have very little support. They worked okay for me in my younger days but I find I now need something a little sturdier. I am also finding that on an increasing basis even bralettes have back clasps.

Free People bralette

Free People bralette

While I wish mainstream retailers would make the effort to include accessible bras in their lines, because who doesn’t want easy comfortable bras. It’s not like they’re something that is worn all day everyday… oh wait.

So they would have consumer appeal outside the disability community. I also find it disappointing that clothing brands that are specifically marketing adaptive clothing seem to care so little for esthetic (it’s not just the bras believe me). As I have grown further away from my track suit wearing youth, I find myself less able and less willing to force myself into ambivalence about what I wear because there is so little created with people like me in mind. I no longer accept the visible otherness that being unable to wear trendy clothing or at least wearing the same few things repeatedly creates. I like to express myself through what I wear and I find it galling that I am limited now in what is considered an essential clothing item.

If anyone knows of some comfortable accessible bras that my hours of trawling google haven’t found, please share in the comments.