Athena Magazine

Fashion, lifestyle, passions

What do I want to look like? April 25, 2009

styleBy Ruth Johnston

I did some unplanned shopping this evening when I had a mundane errand at Target. I rarely find clothes I like there, but they have electric carts—I’m disabled from walking much, so the mall is almost impossible—and a few times a year, I look. The price suits my budget. I pulled some things off the racks, and started trying them on.

I’m not easy to dress, although being thin helps. I have fly-away hair, I can’t wear heels, and I have to plan everything for how it will look sitting down, because more and more, I have to use a wheelchair. Moreover, for many years I was buried in a township with a hundred times more trees than people, and I was so busy raising kids that I couldn’t form a sense of fashion.  As the kids got older, I began to ask, what did I want to look like? I really wasn’t sure. I wanted to look nice, of course, but I also wanted somehow to look like myself. I didn’t want to dress like the people around me, who wore polar fleece to church. But who did I want to look like? Me. But who was I? Nothing for it but to start trying to find out. I made some bad purchases, and gradually worked out a few principles.

So I stood in the Target dressing room, seeing look after look that wasn’t just wrong, but horribly wrong. The last item on the knob broke one of my top rules: don’t wear extremely bright colors. This little top was the shrillest fuschia I could imagine, and I expected the usual horrors when I tried it on. To my surprise, it looked like me. Not only that, its graceful, short drape would look nice even sitting in a wheelchair: nothing stiff to bunch up, nothing long to fold or sit on. Three-quarter sleeves to look right sitting or standing, and to keep the chill off in air conditioning. I was still surprised, though. Why did this top that broke my rules still look like me?

When I was two years old, I fell in love with the machine-woven decorative strips that were in fashion on blue jeans a few years ago. I persuaded my mother to sew scraps of them all around my blanky, and I was sure I had the prettiest blanky in the world. I still like scrolly, complicated designs: the Book of Kells, Swedish embroidery, Norwegian knitting, Oriental carpets, and fancy iron lattices. If I had my way, I’d wear a Romanian embroidered shirt as everyday street wear.

As I seek the intersection between this season’s fashion, my disability, and my personality, I guess the compromise I’ve come to is that anything I truly love must always have some little decorative detail. It can be smocking, or lace, or fancy buttons. Best of all when it’s embroidery: I am still a sucker for flowers and leaves. Target’s fuschia top has two large, scrolly buttons. The design isn’t stamped; it’s cast into the plastic so that light can shine through the slits and holes between the edges of the beautiful design.

It’s a simple way of making a statement of individuality that overcomes not only the universals of this year’s fashion, but also the stereotyping power of sitting in a wheelchair. You don’t have to pity me, it says: just look at my buttons. I’m still myself.

See the sweater I bought here.