In his new series, the fashion expert Gok Wan helps disabled women to go clothes shopping with confidence again
Tracy Warren sits in front of a huge, illuminated mirror in her dressing room as a make-up artist gently brushes shimmering powder on her eyelids. “I bought a red basque last night,” she whispers excitedly, and they giggle together conspiratorially. “He’s going to love it!”
She gossips away about her new wardrobe and the new confidence — and male attention — that arrived with it, but Warren is experiencing more than just the average post-purchase ego boost. Born with one leg shorter than the other, she has spent her life battling with low body-confidence. After a cystic tumour on her spine left her permanently in a wheelchair two years ago, she began to hide herself away, ashamed of how she looked.
“I just wanted to sink into the background,” Warren, 40, recalls. “I thought that it didn’t matter how I looked anyway because all anyone would see was the chair. I never wore make-up and I hid my legs with baggy jeans.”
As for many of the estimated 800,000 wheelchair users in the UK, shopping became a nightmare and the pleasures of following fashion and feeling attractive seemed no longer to apply to her.
Who better, then, to rescue Warren from her fate than the unstoppable Gok Wan? His Channel 4 show How To Look Good Naked has long been championed for ridding women of their body hang-ups and fashion disasters. In his latest series, which begins next week, he offers style advice to three disabled women, each with a different condition.
Today, armed with new haircuts and tailored outfits in eye-popping colours, Warren and Di Cram, who went blind at the age of 28, are preparing to celebrate their new-found confidence in a professional photoshoot (also featured in the series is Clare Smith, a mum-of-three with a prosthetic arm).
Taking a moment’s respite from the blast of hairdryers, loud electro music, cables, booms and flashlights, Wan admits that he was apprehensive about the project (“I s*** myself,” he declares cheerily). Not without reason. The fashion industry is hardly famous for its inclusive ethos. A small number of boutiques and websites, such as the Scottish company Able2Wear and Wheelie Chix, offer clothes and accessories for people with physical impairments, but customers complain that many are too expensive, unfashionable or both.
Designers and magazines have finally started using ethnic minority, plus-size and older models, but the style world still ignores the issue of disability, whether it’s on the catwalks or at the shopping mall. Last year a law student, Riam Dean, won £9,000 in damages from the US clothing firm Abercrombie & Fitch after being moved from the shop floor to work in the stockroom because her prosthetic arm did not fit the company’s “look policy”.
“There’s not enough information for women with disabilities,” says Wan, sporting a Sgt. Pepper-style jacket and geeky black-framed specs. “There’s no one saying ‘these are the cuts for you’, not enough merchandising and signage, nothing in the windows, and you never see a disabled model or mannequin.”
In a survey of more than 1,200 disabled adults by the charity Leonard Cheshire Disability last year, 61 per cent said that they had had trouble getting into shops and 11 per cent said that staff were reluctant to serve them. Five per cent said that they had been refused entry to a store altogether. Some high street chains, such as Next, offer proper changing rooms for the disabled, with folding seats and handrails, but there is still a long way to go.
Warren, a transport planner and single mother from Leicestershire, describes the nightmare of manoeuvring around mammoth department stores with rails of clothes hanging impossibly high up and customers falling into her lap. Not wanting to trouble the sales assistants, she got into the habit of buying clothes and trying them on at home. Of course, they never looked the same as on the mannequins. Warren is a petite size 6-8 but grew frustrated that, as she was always sitting down, even the most flattering top sagged.
Shopping for footwear is a big challenge for Warren because one of her feet is much smaller than the other. “I can’t afford to buy two pairs of shoes every time,” she says, “so normally I buy the big size and stuff the toe of one shoe. But summer is a killer. Sometimes I dread going out.”
Shopping for clothes that felt sexy and comfortable became a trial for Di Cram, 54, too. She loved fashion as a teenager growing up in the 1970s, favouring A-line skirts and nifty jackets with turned-up sleeves. But then penicillin poisoning caused her to start losing her sight and for years she could see only colours, shapes and shadows. Then, at the age of 28, she went completely blind. A fiercely independent woman, she suddenly became reliant on those around her for shopping and, she says, lost her sense of style.
“I tried never to make a fuss when I went shopping,” says Cram. “It’s boring for people to have to keep saying what’s there. People would pick things out and say ‘this blue looks brilliant on you!’ and I would buy it. In the end, I came out looking like the person I went shopping with.”
Terrified that she would forget the faces of her three children, and slowly adjusting to her blindness, Cram felt that she no longer needed to worry about her image. As a magistrate in Exeter she had to look smart for court but the bright colours and trendy cuts of her younger days began to be replaced with lots of black, in case anything became stained during the day without her realising.
Wan describes this as his most challenging project yet: reintroducing a wholly visual activity to a woman who had lost her sight. He decided that it was essential to re-educate Cram on how trends had changed since the days when she could see the high street for herself.
“Di’s sight went in the early Seventies,” he says, “so when you tell her that something is orange she pictures a bright, putrid Zandra Rhodes colour, not a soft, pale tangerine.” He spent a long time describing the curve of a dress, the shade of a blouse or the cut of a pair of jeans. He made her a special book with the shape of her body cut out from material, so that she could feel how she looked and know how a new buy would hang on her.
“This programme has made me focus on myself,” she says. “It made me start asking: what do I look like? I’m 54 now and my gran died at 52 so I always pictured myself looking like her. She had bunions and wore long, grey pleated skirts because that’s how things were when I lost my sight. Now I realise that fashion has moved on and women of all ages can be glamorous.” She began to picture her figure, her skin tone, the fabrics and styles she liked — and stopped dressing according to the opinions of those around her.
Unsurprisingly, she is now besotted with her new stylist. “It’s such a pity he’s gay,” she confides when he’s not looking.
Warren is feeling equally elated after Wan showed her simple tricks, such as wearing maternity jeans and skirts with pleats and waistbands to hide her stomach. More importantly, he used his infectious, rousing enthusiasm to show her that she has nothing to be ashamed of. Now she has even met a new man while volunteering at the British Waterskiing Association.
The cheap, neutral-coloured bras that she bought at supermarkets have been thrown out for sexy underwear in racy colours and silky fabrics. She used to wear loose black and grey tops and jeans to cover up from head to toe, but now feels confident enough to draw attention to herself with floral patterns, short skirts and cropped jackets. “I’ve learnt to wear skinny jeans, leggings, dresses and tights,” Warren beams. “I spent so many years worrying and I don’t want to stress about it because life’s too short. You are what you are. Make the most of it.”
Wan says that no woman should be robbed of the joy of choosing and wearing new clothes. Shopping cannot solve the world’s problems, of course, but it allows a person to take part in society and be visible. “Fashion is important because it’s about women having a sense of community and feeling they have somewhere they belong,” he says. “Every woman should be able to present how she feels about her body, regardless of whether she’s a size 18 or in a wheelchair.”
He is reluctant to say that the programme will change clothing companies’ policies or improve disabled access on the high street but he does hope that it will send a message to millions of viewers — that thousands of women are being sidelined from a national pastime.
Anne Pridmore, of the UK Disability Forum Women’s Committee, herself a wheelchair user due to cerebral palsy, says that retailers’ reluctance to cater for disabled women comes down to a widespread squeamishness over the idea of disabled people having sex and being sexual. “Clothes are just as important for disabled as for non-disabled women,” she says. “If you have a man in your life, you want to wear some sexy underwear. But you go into a shop like Ann Summers and they look at you like you’re an alien.”
She recalls browsing a shopping website that specialised in clothes for disabled people. It advertised its lingerie using able-bodied women draped over wheelchairs.
“This programme is a positive thing because disabled women need to be out there and we need to be seen — to show the world that we can be sexy. No amount of training in shops can make that happen.”
Di Cram agrees that media exposure can be the best way to break down barriers.
“Fashion is a good way of getting issues across to people,” she says, as a hairdresser teases the ends of her hair into glamorous curls. “It helps people to learn that you’re not just some pathetic person and you can get out with the best of them. It has taught me that I have something to offer. I felt totally at home on the catwalk and now I’ve decided: I want to be the first blind model.”
How to Look Good Naked . . .With a Difference starts on Tuesday, January 19 at 8pm on Channel 4
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