Fashion

I Have A Disability, And I’m Going All Out On


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Graphic by Kayleen Dicuangco

Bring on the glitter.

By Ardra Shephard

Date December 13, 2021

When it comes to holiday dressing, my style philosophy has always been more is more. December is a time when I’m not ashamed to compete for attention with the 2000 lights of the 10-ft Fraser fir that overwhelms my tiny Toronto apartment. From crystal earrings to sparkly bracelets, beaded headbands, and glimmering shimmering necklaces — if it can be draped, wrapped, hooked or hung, every branch of my body deserves a bauble.

If what we wear is a form of communication about how we see ourselves and the world, a holiday glow-up, both literally and figuratively, expresses that I am joyful, thankful and merry; I am cozy, comfortable, loved and loving. The season’s themes, from snug to snazzy, are easily translated into everything from cable-knit sweaters and sherpa-lined slippers to sequined blazers and velvet jumpers.

To me, holiday fashion has always been about trying to make an impression in a crowded room full of like-minded, over-dressed attention-seekers, but living with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), a disability that compromises my mobility, makes it harder to stand out when I’m mostly sitting down. Or, when I do attract stares, it’s for all the wrong reasons. As my disability progressed and I started to need mobility aids — first a cane, then a rollator, and sometimes a wheelchair — I doubled down on joyful fashion and style when it seemed like too many people were making false assumptions about my life.

In a world where we don’t associate joy with disability, making fashion choices that reflect self-love and happiness can almost feel radical. There’s a false narrative around disability that, as disabled individuals, we shouldn’t love or celebrate our bodies but instead be in constant pursuit of fixing what society deems broken. Holiday images of people with disabilities are far more likely to be affiliated with charitable giving campaigns than with anything that evokes celebration and style.

To my mind, it’s hard to feel sad for someone who has chosen to apply glitter to their face. My holiday-style statement says that I didn’t come for a pity party. Pass the champagne and hold my Chanel clutch because I came to actually party.

Of course, dressing with a disability in mind does have some considerations. Living with MS means I have to get creative in my approach to fashion. Foot drop means I can no longer wear heels, and sourcing stylish shoes is not as simple as swapping stilettos for slides. That would be sad but hardly a tragedy. My disability means my footwear must have a supportive back and eyelets to attach a brace or be wide and sturdy enough to house an orthotic that goes all the way to my knee. For me, every look starts with a cane or a rollator, and while I’ve snagged the most stylish, too many reactions like “what happened to you?” tell me that mobility aids can overwhelm an outfit.

The good news is that fashion is changing. Social media has democratized who gets to say what’s cool, and there’s no such thing as convention anymore. In a landscape where waistbands are optional, mixing prints is encouraged, and makeup and skirts are for all genders, the only fashion rule seems to be: you do you. As someone deeply invested in hashtags like #babesWithMobilityAids, I’ve learned that what makes us different also makes us interesting, and it’s never been easier to elevate your look and express yourself through clothing while respecting your limitations.

Getting dressed for the holidays doesn’t have to feel like one more taxing thing you have to do — a chore that ​saps energy before you even get to the main event. As someone living with a disability, I’ve learned some simple fashion hacks over the years that prioritize comfort and ease without sacrificing style.

Keep it comfortable

My chronic pain isn’t caused by shapewear or anything with a belt, but it isn’t exactly consoled by it either. The pandemic has ushered in a welcome number of style trends that at first seem counterintuitive to party dressing, but in reality can be easily elevated into holiday looks. Designer sweatpants with flattering cuts can be the cozy foundation to a look that becomes all about a frilly top, while allowing me to comfortably indulge in shortbread cookies and second helpings of my dad’s famous stuffing.

The Roots Cozy Fleece Skinny Sweatpants are my perennial fave, and the green ones feel particularly festive.

Prioritize ease

When medical-grade fatigue makes getting dressed up feel like too much work, I’m almost never too tired to slip on a bracelet or put on a pair of earrings. The right accessories can turn a t-shirt into something sophisticated, and when it comes to the holidays, there’s no such thing as too much bling.

Another simple hack for elevating your look without sacrificing spoons is to keep texture and colour in mind. Bold jewel tones and bright reds instantly read as festive no matter the cut or style; fabrics like velvet and faux fur look and feel luxe with minimal effort.

Jenny Bird’s trinkets are always welcome around my neck or under the tree; while pairing Free People’s cherry-coloured velvet blazer with a pair of jeans is an easy way to elevate a look to “best-dressed” heights.

Engage all senses

December is a sensory experience. We all have our own versions of what the holidays sound like: jingle bells and crowded shopping malls, the first crunches of snow, Mariah on repeat. Nothing elevates my holiday look faster or more effortlessly than a spritz of my favourite scent.

Warm and elegant, Hermès’ Eau des Merveilles feels made for the holidays.

Stay toasty

In addition to being medically tired, dysesthesia (abnormal sensation resulting from nerve damage) renders me clinically cold. Gone are the days of standing in a mini-dress and a jacket that barely covers my bum, praying for my Uber to arrive as my fingers turn blue. From oversized puffer coats to wearable hot water bottles with bespoke covers, cozy has never looked cuter.

Yuyu’s hot water bottles are like hugs you can wear.

Treat yourself

MS or not, the holidays are exhausting. Splurging on blowdrys and manicures means outsourcing tasks that are taxing. The best part is that you can actually look festive and put-together in your pyjamas when your hair and nails are done.

Shout out to my local, Medulla — one of the few accessible salons in Toronto.

As we get ready for another pandemic holiday, I am bursting to paint my lips — and the town — red once again. Parties will be intimate this year, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t time for a return to the extravagant styles the season demands. Whether you’re dressing with disability in mind or not, holiday fashion should be fun. This is your chance to light up every room you walk or roll into; so go be your most fabulous you, and let your inner sparkle shine.

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