What to wear in a wheelchair: changing fashion for good

Model and Kidz Board member Caitlyn Fulton on fashion's trend towards diversity plus how to look fabulous but stay comfortable

Fashion has always been about more than just clothes. Or the global billion-dollar business of deciding what we’ll want to wear, and why, this season, it really should be ‘Coastal Grandmother’ style, featuring as many feathers as possible and Digital Lavender coloured. (Other fashion advice is available).

Fashion is actually about the new. As Alistair O’Neill, Professor of Fashion History and Theory at Central Saint Martins, says, “it’s a cultural and social phenomenon, driven by the desire for the new… the industry can never fully control fashion: fashion is all about being open to change.”

So while it’s a space that has often promoted ideals of beauty that are unachievable for many, controlled by an unrepresentative and often exploitative industry, it has also been a dynamic area where change can happen. Recently, that has been more diversity in who makes fashion, sells fashion and gets to represent fashion. And that now, after years of fighting to be seen, that includes wheelchair users.

This year’s London Fashion Week is arguably the more diverse yet. One example was designer Victoria Jenkin’s Unhidden brand showcase which made a splash with stylish, practical clothes for people with disabilities. Unhidden exists for “the 1 in 5 people with a disability who don’t get to dress as they want to every day” and are unseen by the fashion industry. Their solution for the future of fashion is universal design that everyone can wear but with adaptations that make life easier for people to access their bodies under the clothes in a dignified way. Jenkins, who has reduced mobility, told Reuters: "Diversity without disability isn't diversity… it feels like it's the last taboo. People are still scared of the D word. You know, disabled is not a bad word.” Her collection includes tailor-made suits and shirts with longer backs for wheelchair users.

At her Unhidden show, around 30 models with a disability or visible difference moved down the catwalk, including in wheelchairs, wearing her adaptive fashion. After all, there would be no fashion without models. So it’s great to see the blooming diversity in design, represented by brands like Unhidden, being matched by models who can show off the clothes.

Caitlyn Fulton has been modelling for over three years for innovative adaptive fashion brands and start ups. She’s also a young wheelchair user who's had close links with Whizz-Kidz since childhood in her native Scotland. She joined the Kidz Board last year and plans to work on a fashion-focused project with the charity in the near future. We caught up during London Fashion Week to learn more about her modelling and get some advice on what to wear in a wheelchair.

As a model, what are you hoping to see in London Fashion week?
Given that London Fashion Week focuses on creativity, innovation and culture within the various designs showcased, I’m intrigued and excited to see what this year’s approach will be! 

I’m also really looking forward to seeing what Burberry’s collection has to offer in appointing Daniel Lee as their new  chief creative officer. 

Where have you modelled before?
In recent years, I have modelled and was one of two of the founding faces of Kintsugi Clothing which was an accessible clothing brand, founded by Emma McClelland in Manchester in 2019. 

Later that year, I showcased and modelled for Scottish designer, Alison Black’s adaptive collection, created as part of her graduate look-book at the University of Edinburgh, which was then selected and showcased at London Graduate Fashion Week. 

Going across the pond, I’ve showcased Cadarra here in Scotland: a versatile yet simplistic dress created in Australia by Patsy Cadell that can be styled in multiple ways to achieve different looks. 

Alison and I are back working together on a very exciting project which relates to fashion in partnership with Whizz-Kidz… Watch this space! 

Do you think there is enough representation of models in wheelchairs?
The representation of models in wheelchairs has opened up in the last few years, but there’s still a long way to go. For example, Aaron Rose Phillip making her runway debut at Mochino’s S/S 2022 show during New York Fashion Week in 2021. Also Tommy Hilfiger creating and incorporating an adaptive collection. 

Seeing the lack of representation as a teenager sparked my interest in modelling, from having an interest in fashion, as I hadn’t seen any models who were like me – wheelchair users strutting their stuff down a catwalk or being chosen for editorials.

What would you like to see more or less of in the fashion world?
Personally, I would like to see more fitted flattering styles that enhance any body shape and less of the current oversized looks, as due to sitting – oversized styles don’t suit me personally, nor look flattering, plus I have to make sure any excess material is tucked in to avoid it hitting my wheels and leaving marks.

How long have you been on the Kidz Board? 
Last year, 2022, was my first full year on the Kidz Board. It’s been a brilliant experience so far, and excited to see what this year brings. 

What made you want to join the charity? 
I’ve been involved with the charity since I was young, receiving equipment to enhance and further my independence to attending local clubs with fellow young people involved with Whizz–Kidz throughout the area, to now being on the Board. You could say my involvement has now come full circle. This is my way of giving back to a charity that’s given me so much over the years.”

I do think the future of fashion is an accessible one though and I can’t wait to see the clothes the designers come up with, wear them and maybe model some too.

Model and Kidz Board member Caitlyn Fulton

Caitlyn on clothes: 6 fashion tips for young wheelchair users

1. Understand what works for you
General fashion advice I would give fellow wheelchair users is firstly, understand what works for you and your body when sitting. 

2. Wear clothes you feel great in
Consider patterns, prints and styles you’re most drawn to that make you feel your best and most beautiful self! 

3. Don’t forget to be comfortable
Basic and simplistic outfits work wonders also, but ultimately wear what you feel most comfortable in. Don’t suffer for fashion!

4. Easy access is important
Day to day, I usually wear varying styles of dresses or a top and patterned skirts, paired with long black socks, especially in the winter months, to give the illusion of tights.

5. Jeans can be difficult
I wear long socks instead of jeans or trousers. I will wear them on an odd day if they are key to a particular outfit. Still, it’s a love/hate relationship in finding the correct leg length and overall fit, and I find them uncomfortable at my waist due to sitting for prolonged periods of time, certainly as I’m a full-time wheelchair user. 

6. Don’t give up!
I know firsthand the constant battle we, as wheelchair users, face in keeping up with the ever-changing and current fashion trends, always trying our best to adapt them to suit us. 

Additionally, the possible frustration and upset that comes with shopping in store or online, being unable to buy certain trending pieces that catch our eye, envisioning ourselves in them almost instantly, then reality hits and realising the impracticality.

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