Navigating Personal Style with a Disability

  We all have different relationships with our bodies, fashion, and the way we choose to present ourselves to the world.


We all have different relationships with our bodies, fashion, and the way we choose to present ourselves to the world. There are a million things big and small that play into that for each one of us. We grow and learn and change, and the world around us does the same, and therefore personal style does as well. It can be a slow meandering path or a jump off the deep end sort of new adventure every morning when you look in your closet. One isn’t any better than the other, it’s up to you. It’s your body, your style, your life. I heard once that Anna Wintour doesn’t like the word “journey,” with regards to fashion or personal style, but I do, so I’m here to share a bit of my personal style journey with you. 

Ten years ago I was actually a fashion student. One who felt like she had found her style. I may have looked a bit like I rolled out of a van somewhere back in 1969. I may have actually owned a van too. I was invested and I didn’t imagine my style changing ever. Not surprisingly, I was wrong and this all changed one lovely spring afternoon, enjoying time with friends. I ended up falling out of the tree I suggested we climb. That day I went from being capable of getting thirty feet up in said tree, to being mostly paralyzed from the chest down. Being a quadriplegic and using a wheelchair changed my relationship with my body obviously, but it changed my relationship with fashion more drastically than I ever would have expected. 

Logically, I knew clothes didn’t fit the way you want them to when you sit down. Everything rides up, or slides down, bunches in the wrong spot, or digs in somewhere you don’t want it to. We all experience that, but for the majority it’s only temporary. I was not prepared to feel as uncomfortable as I did in so many of the things I wanted to wear. For a long time, I sacrificed personal style to feel comfortable in a body that was new to me. Learning to go about my life in a completely different way was most important. I had things to accomplish, and fashion was distracting.

I did accomplish the things I wanted to. I got so much stronger and gained a lot of function back. I learned to drive with hand controls and was ready to go back to college. But college meant getting back into fashion and meeting new people. We all want to present the best version of ourselves to the world. Our first impression is generally a visual one. Everyday life isn’t an episode of Love Is Blind. I needed my style to reflect my personality more than it was in that moment, but it wasn’t easy.


Caitlyn is wearing a '70s Wool Blend Plaid Swing Skirt By Bryn Mawr Bobbie Brooks from Maison Rouge Boutique.

I started looking for pieces that were comfortable, but only if they were colors and patterns I really loved. I tried new trends over the years, from maxi skirts, to crop tops, even some athleisure looks, and absolutely anything knit or made with spandex. For a time I struggled with buttons and zippers, but I tried to incorporate them anyway if I really loved the outfit. You can’t get better at something you don’t practice. I’ve found a lot of elements that work well with my body as it is and plenty of others that don’t. There has been and will continue to be a lot of trial and error, as I mentioned before, it is a journey.

Over these last ten year my body had continued to change as everyone’s does, disability or not. I’ve lost weight going through cancer treatment and had surgery to improve an injury complication. Other people grow a few inches, build muscle, have children. We are much more body positive these days and that’s amazing, but it isn’t always that simple. Some days I love getting dressed, some days I still find it frustrating. I try now though, even on the days where I’m aggravated with my body, to find something that is comfortable, and maybe distracts from whatever it is that isn’t working or looking the way I would hope, but still feels like me. Maybe it’s a vintage tee for an organization you support, a special piece of vintage jewelry, something that brings back a happy memory, or something that reflects the you that is on the inside out to the world.

For me, I know that the next step in my personal style journey is adding more of the vintage pieces I love into my everyday wardrobe, as well as making everything I have fit better. I’ll be taking what I’ve learned about what works with my wheelchair and applying it to shopping for vintage pieces. I’ll be making a lot more alterations than I have before, but clothes that fit not just your body, but your soul are absolutely worth the effort!

I hope my personal style journey can serve as a bit of inspiration for everyone in their own exploration. As you go out to find your style, keep these 5 tips in mind:  

    1. Get comfortable with your body. It's your body. It's special and no one has a body like you. This takes time and might not be consistent, be patient with yourself when your body changes.

    2. Try on a lot of vintage. You don't know what fits your personal style until you try it on. Everything will look different on your body than it does on a hanger or online.

    3. Accessories always fit. A cute vintage purse or a funky pair of vintage earrings can elevate the simplest outfit for a look that is more unique to you. 

    4. Alter vintage to make it fit your style and your body. It's work but it's worth it.  You'll thank me later.

    5. New or vintage -- only buy what you love. If you love the clothes you wear then you will feel good in them.


Caitlyn Pallas is a guest blogger. Barbies and Stevie Nicks were her first fashion icons, and watching Anthony Bourdain (against parental warnings) inspired an interest in cultural anthropology. She studied textiles, merchandising, and design at University of Rhode Island and received a Master's in dress and textile history from University of Glasgow. "I am still trying to carve out a space for myself in the world of fashion," she says. "I can’t say everything has gone to plan, but as some wise dudes who were probably just stoned once said, 'There are two paths you can go by, but in the long run, there’s still time to change the road you’re on.'"

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