Disability

How A Trench Coat For Dogs Angrily Inspired A Fashion System For The Disabled

A congenital amputee herself, designer Stephanie Thomas was so frustrated by the limited fashion options for the disabled that she launched her own styling firm.

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A few years ago, while shopping for pet supplies, Stephanie Thomas found a trench coat designed for dogs. Most would have laughed or hardly noticed it, but for Thomas, it changed her life. “It annoyed me,” she remembers. “I was like, ‘There are literally more clothing designs for pets than people with disabilities.”

For some years, Thomas, who was born without toes, had nurtured a passion for adaptive fashion. The hobby bordered on obsession. Soon after the pet store epiphany, Thomas embarked on a kind of fashion hunger strike: for the next year, she wore nothing but pajamas. “I just wanted to see what it was like to go into a store and see my choices limited,” she explained. “That’s what people with disabilities deal with on a regular basis.”

“It annoyed me,” she remembers. “I was like, ‘There are literally more clothing designs for pets than people with disabilities.”

The experience, which she recounted daily on a radio show (she called herself at the time the “PJ DJ”), severely impacted her life. “I gained 30 pounds. My whole social interaction skills completely shifted. That’s when I decided I needed to do something about this.”

Thomas developed the Disability Fashion Styling System, a guide for how to shop for clothes that are “accessible, smart, and fashionable.” In Hollywood, she began acquiring clients, disabled people who wanted more from their outfits than what the mundane, limited options available on the market could provide. Eventually, Thomas quit her job in media and launched Cur8ble, a consultancy and styling firm. Along with individual clients, many of whom work in film, she now regularly works with brands in producing more accessible and inclusive fashion lines. The fashion industry, which has long ignored people with disabilities, is rapidly changing, Thomas says, due, in no small part, to social media and the body positivity movement. We reached out to Thomas to hear more.

The fashion industry, which has long ignored people with disabilities, is rapidly changing, Thomas says, due, in no small part, to social media and the body positivity movement. We reached out to Thomas to hear more.

An African-American woman in a black hat dresses a beautiful disabled model in a wheelchair, also African-American.
Stephanie Thomas dressing Lauren “Lolo” Spencer, a disabled model.

Prior to Cur8ble, what was your experience with disability?

I’m a congenital amputee, born without toes. Doctors took bones from different parts of my body, such as my fingers, to develop toes so I can ambulate independently. My dressing issue is primarily with small fasteners, buttons and footwear. I like dresses and skirts but with most of the shoes that are closed-toed either the vamp on the top is too short to provide support or it’s just ugly. When you want to put on swanky, sexy shoes to go out for a night and you’re forced to wear Espadrilles or something closed-toe to have that support so you can ambulate, it sucks.

How did you first become interested in accessible fashion?

In college, someone asked me to participate in a Miss America pageant. I won and was assigned a styling coach. She hated the fact that I never buttoned my cuff. But it was hard because of my disability. Her husband was a wheelchair user and she asked if I had ever thought about clothing for people with disabilities. I was like, “That’s a thing?” She said, “It needs to be but it’s not.” Here and there were brands trying to meet the needs for people with disabilities but it was more functional then fashionable. For me it just became a hobby. I went down the rabbit hole. I researched and called everyone I’d ever met with disabilities, people I read about in articles and dissertations. I never intended to do anything but solve a problem.

She asked if I had ever thought about clothing for people with disabilities. I was like, “That’s a thing?” She said, “It needs to be but it’s not.”

What is one problem with the current state of accessible fashion?

When you’re a person with a disability, you have access to retail stores because of ramps. But even today you can’t go into Macy’s or somewhere and see retail real estate dedicated to people with disabilities. And if someone with a disability buys the non-accessible clothing on the floor, a lot of them take an hour or three hours or twenty minutes to put it on, to just button pants or something. It’s a whole other world that people don’t even think about.

How did you devise the Disability Fashion Styling System?

I just asked questions; I was probably a bit annoying. If I saw anyone in a wheelchair or using crutches I’d go start a conversation about their clothes. One time I was sitting in Barnes & Noble reading a book and saw a guy in a wheelchair sitting with a female friend. He had on sweatpants. I was like, “Oh no.” Turns out he had recently injured himself and his occupational therapist had told him to wear sweatpants because they were the easiest thing to put on. Often when I introduce clients to my styling system they say, “What have I been doing?” I had one woman last night say this, a celebrity makeup artist named Chauntal Williams. She lost her hand in a car accident. Everything was something she could do with one hand.

Disabled model Lauren “Lolo” Spencer wearing another one of Stephanie Thomas’s signature looks.

Who are some brands you’ve worked with?

The ones I haven’t signed non-disclosure agreements for are Nike, Zappos Adaptive, and a lot of boutique brands like AG Apparel and IZ Adaptive.

How is the industry changing?

It’s changing because of social media. The fact that people with disabilities are empowered with tools to tell their own stories is incredible. It’s showing people that we date, we go to work, we like to swim–normalizing disability. Social media has changed the game. Right now the conversation’s starting to change and it really excites me. I saw on Good Morning America recently a woman presenting. She was like, “Oh my gosh, there’s now clothing that’s inclusive and adaptive!” Do you know how long I’ve been begging Good Morning America to have me on and talk about this?

The fact that people with disabilities are empowered with tools to tell their own stories is incredible. It’s showing people that we date, we go to work, we like to swim–normalizing disability.

It’s partly because the fashion industry is having its Napster moment. Bloggers have changed who the gatekeeper is and how people make decisions on dressing their own bodies. You’re seeing more people with disabilities in commercials, without explanation, at a cookout or out with their parents. Brands are saying, “Wow, people with disabilities are actually fashion customers! Who knew?” They would tell me behind the scenes, at meetings, “Oh, so the cripple wants to wear clothing? They don’t even leave the house.” These perceptions of disability are being challenged by social media.

What are some plans you have for the future?
I’m currently working on making a Cur8ble podcast. I’m going to introduce people to the industry, take them behind the curtain and show them all the amazing people that I know. Also, my first textbook will be out in early 2020. It’s called Fitting In: The Social Implications of Fashion and Dressing With Disabilities. I’ve curated relevant articles, including my own writing.

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