The Joy of Fashion: How becoming a wheelchair user changed my relationship with my wardrobe
by Natasha Lipman
13 May 2022
Introducing our Joy of Fashion series: looking at how what you wear can affect your mood, confidence and sense of self. Throughout Spring, we’ll be hearing from writers who each give a different perspective on finding the moments of joy in your everyday outfits.
It’s a beautiful June day on Carnaby Street in London. I’m wearing a mint green, vintage-style dress. It has a statement neckline with overlapping pink panels that fall off my shoulders, a tight bodice, a belt in matching fabrics and a large circle skirt. I’m wearing my dark curls pinned up around my face, and bright pink lipstick on my lips and cheeks.
Someone yells across the street at me, and then comes running over to tell me how much she loves my outfit. Her friends come and join her.
I laugh and say thank you.
It’s 10pm on a weeknight and I’m in a club on the other side of London watching a drag show. Something similar happens. I’m wearing a vintage-style dress (again) in navy blue. It’s got sailor-vibes, with a red, white and blue slashed collar and a red bow pinned in the middle. Again, there’s a matching fabric belt and a huge circle skirt. A small, monogrammed vintage designer handbag I inherited from my mum is slung across my body.
Someone comes up to me multiple times in the night, granted a little drunk, to tell me how good I look and how nice it is to see me there.
I laugh and say thank you again.
These aren’t the only experiences I’ve had of such loud, enthusiastic compliments on my outfits in public from strangers. And I’m pretty sure it’s only because at these times, I was looking fabulous whilst sitting in a wheelchair. At least it never happened before.
"One thing I wasn’t expecting was that it would change my relationship to fashion… and in turn fashion would help me change my relationship to my disability."
I spent a good chunk of my twenties alone in bed. I live with a number of chronic illnesses that were very poorly managed at the time, which caused my health to decline dramatically.
During these times, the peak of my sartorial efforts were a pair of leggings and an old baggy t-shirt, unwashed hair knottily pulled up into a bun, and a soft, fluffy dressing gown if it was getting a bit chilly.
I would look in the mirror, pale (paler than usual), greasy, with huge bags under my eyes and see a version of myself I hated. A version of myself that was ill and stuck and scared. It was a visible manifestation of how I felt. And it didn’t feel good.
In those rare moments I would leave to exist outside of my room, I always wanted to be “outside Natasha”. Just as precisely as I planned the activity, I planned when I could have a bath and wash my hair. I’d make sure to lay out a comfortable but cute outfit, and would rarely be seen without a slash of red lipstick. Nobody would know that this wasn’t my normal.
It was not only a separation between “Bed Natasha” and the outside world. It made me feel more like the person I felt like I’d lost. It made me feel more like a person at all.
As the years went on, my pain and fatigue became more challenging, and I made the decision to become a part-time wheelchair user. It opened up the world to me again, allowing me to leave the house more without experiencing as much pain or fatigue, and knocking significant days off the time I had to spend bedbound in recovery from even a small excursion. One thing I wasn’t expecting was that it would change my relationship to fashion… and in turn fashion would help me change my relationship to my disability.
"Using a wheelchair also meant that I could wear shoes that I couldn't possibly walk in. These shoes are purely for sitting, and I carry a pair of boots for changing into when I need to get up."
When I went shopping for my first wheelchair, the number one consideration was comfort, but number two was how did it look? It was hard enough accepting that this was something that I needed in my twenties, I couldn’t bear the idea of rolling around in something that felt like it was made for my grandma.
I found a lovely little chair called the Rascal. It was red (not my favourite, but it’d do) with a black leather seat. It fitted me perfectly and looked adorable. It felt comfortable to sit in (but not to roll over pavements) and it made me feel, again, like a person. Not someone medicalised in a grey metal piece of equipment I was given by my doctor.
One thing I wasn’t expecting was that, no matter where I went, people started staring at me. As someone who is 4 foot 9 and used to people looking over my head, this felt extra challenging. I not only had to come to terms with making my disability visible, I also had to come to terms with the fact that how people perceived me changed. I was no longer just Natasha, I was that girl in the wheelchair.
Almost overnight, how I looked became infinitely more important to me. If people were going to stare, I didn’t want to be that inside sick Natasha. I wanted to be the fabulous Natasha I was in my head.
One thing many people probably don’t realise (I certainly didn’t) was that using a wheelchair also determines the types of clothes you’re able to wear. I’ve rolled over the long circle skirts of beautiful vintage style dresses more times than I can count, shorter dresses leave too little to the imagination when you’re sitting down (for my personal comfort, anyway), and back zips (whilst also a nightmare to get on) can become uncomfortable as they rub against the back of the chair.
Even before I became a wheelchair user, handbags were a bit of a fraught game. Too big or too heavy, and they’d pull on my shoulder joints, as well as exacerbate muscle stiffness and neck pain. Back when I was younger, beautiful rucksacks weren’t quite as available, and the “it” styles often weren’t the most comfortable. I now only wear bags that I can wear across me. They need to feel light, safe, secure, and most importantly, beautiful. I prefer to have solid fabric straps - rather than chains, as lovely as they are, purely for comfort reasons.
But I didn’t really care, just so long as what I was wearing made me happy. I remember one bitterly cold winter day, I wore a very warm coat and sat down in my chair. It bunched awkwardly, not cut for sitting, hiding me behind a huge mound of fabric. It was in a bland colour, and a dull waterproof fabric. I saw myself in a mirror before we left the house and I wanted to cry. I think I might have. The coat, whilst warm, was not me. I felt like a ball sitting in a chair, and it made me miserable. I’ve since bought a beautiful faux fur coat that falls perfectly when sitting, is incredibly warm, and makes me smile every time I see it. Likewise, the warm waterproof cover I use in the winter isn’t exactly my style, so I cover it up with a lovely vintage rug and I immediately feel better. I experience little moments of joy every time I roll past a shop window, knowing that I feel like myself.
"Finding ways to express myself through fashion, has helped me to accept myself more... it gave me joy. Simple, everyday joy. But joy all the same."
It took time to realise how much my relationship to fashion had changed. Part of it was because of the external perceptions others had of me now (there’s no use in denying it, as sad as it is), but it was also seeing myself happy and confident in a situation that I had always feared, was a revelation.
Finding joy in fashion helped me express myself, when others couldn't see me, and it’s something that is finding a real foot on social media. With hashtags like #DisabledAndCute and #BabeWithAMobilityAid, disabled people of all ages, but especially young people, are showing that disability is a normal part of life. That being disabled and stylish don’t have to be two contradictory things.
And this is a conversation that is also being had about the aesthetics of mobility aids themselves. If you require a wheelchair, rollator, pair of crutches or a walking stick, why would you want to use something that looks like it came straight out of a medical cupboard? Finding mobility devices that are aesthetically beautiful to you, can make a huge difference to how you feel using them.
My life has changed substantially since I first became a wheelchair user, but this way of thinking about fashion and the small joys it can bring also now manifests in my home life, too.
Pandemic aside, I still spend most of my time at home, and comfort is always the name of the game. But I know that I personally don’t feel as happy or confident if I spend day after day wearing a pair of leggings and a baggy t-shirt.
So, I have cute day pyjamas, or I wear thermal leggings and a lovely soft top with either a statement collar or a statement sleeve. I put on a lip tint and a necklace. Even if the only thing I change in the day is my top, it’s something that separates day from night, whilst also making me smile. After all, who doesn’t love a good statement sleeve?
Finding ways to express myself through fashion, to find ways to make “outside Natasha” more part of my life, has helped me to accept myself more. It gave me a sense of control during a time that felt uncontrollable. It gave me time and space to experiment and play. And above all, it gave me joy. Simple, everyday joy. But joy all the same.
Natasha’s pick of our spring collection
From Radley London’s new collection, I love the Dukes Place Medium Zip-Top Cross Body in Vintage Blue. It’s comfortable, secure and the colour adds a real pop to any outfit.
Natasha Lipman is a former BBC Journalist based in London. She is the host of the Rest Room Podcast and Newsletter about living well with chronic illnesses and the co-founder of "How Do You Say...", a weekly newsletter that shares science-based strategies for part-time language learners. You can find her on social media @natashalipman.