Fashion and identity

A blue t-shirt with the letter B picked up in rhinestones is being held up to the camera.

Customising a t-shirt in the fashion workshop

Artistic Director Ju Gosling aka ju90 writes: Today we held the first of what we hope will be an expanding programme of fashion-related activities, an ‘upcycling’ workshop at the McGrath Centre in Stratford. Fashion has many claims to a place in the art world, yet rarely receives the recognition and inclusion that it deserves.

For disabled people, fashion is particularly important. The late David Morris began his last film, Together! (for the UK Disabled People’s Council), with the statement: “We have fashioned our identities as disabled people.”

I was somewhat taken aback to realize, when viewing the final version of the film for the first time after his death, that he had used an image of me to illustrate this point! But I certainly understood what he meant.

Disabled people are continually identified by our medical labels, rather than by what makes us individuals. Often people emerging from long periods of hospitalization have absorbed this so thoroughly that they will even introduce themselves in this way.

At the same time, if our impairments — or more often our aids and equipment — are visible, we are continually the object of the public gaze. This leads many disabled people to develop a strong sense of personal style, enabling us to meet this gaze head-on as well as stressing our individuality rather than our medical label.

The practical demands imposed by our impairments and aids also force disabled people to consider design more carefully. In my case, I have to look for cuffs that will fit over my wrist braces, tops that open down the front (and preferably do up with zips not buttons), and trousers that are long enough not to show my socks when I am using my wheelchair (yet will not trip me up when I transfer out of it).

For many disabled people, this is simply the start. Customising clothing to fit non-standard bodies is often essential if adults are to avoid wearing children’s clothes or spending all their time in tracksuits. Today’s ‘upcycling’ workshop enabled participants to explore how they could revive their existing wardrobe by individualizing it, at the same time as tailoring it to fit their bodies better. We were inspired by the McGrath Makers’ funky ‘upcycled’ furniture surrounding us.

Starpad DJs, running an open workshop next door as part of Together! 2013, provided a practical demonstration of the confidence disabled people gain when we are able to express our identities through fashion. In contrast, disabled people living in institutions today still find that their clothing can be considered communal, and that they have no choice at all over what they wear – if, that is, they are ever provided with the necessary support to get out of their bedclothes.

For these reasons and more, we are interested in exploring all of the issues relating to disability and fashion over the next few years. We will be working with Newham College fashion students, looking at designs that are suitable for a wide range of body types. We will be working with Models of Diversity to support their campaign to get the fashion industry to use a diverse range of models, including disabled models. We will be working with designers who are disabled themselves, promoting their designs as well as using them as role models to encourage more disabled people to enter the fashion industry.

Most of all, though, we will be working with disabled people and carers, continuing to teach people how to ‘upcycle’ their own wardrobe as well as creating fashion by the McGrath Makers to sell via our online shop. Our hope is that in 2014 we will be able to have our own Fashion Week, complete with a Fashion Show that will bring all of these elements together. If you are interested in supporting this project or becoming involved in any way, please contact us.

A green sequinned evening purse is being held out on top of a table by a woman wearing a yellow cardigan

Creating an evening purse from material scraps at the fashion upcycling workshop