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.

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One Response to “What do I want to look like?”

  1. Ann Sieber Says:

    We’re all like these fuzzy photographs, gradually coming into focus as we age, if we persist as you so aptly describe, in this mysterious and quirky quest for “me.” And I’m with you in being somehow intoxicated by intricate designs – I think they carry on a sub-audible conversation with the patterns of my dna or my neurons or some fractal cellular strata…


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