Last summer, ArtsEmerson partnered with Malia Lazu at Epicenter Community to produce New England’s inaugural Fashion Accessibility Project to a sold out audience in the Jackie Liebergott Black Box at the Emerson Paramount Center. Local fashion designers were paired with individuals with disabilities to collaborate on custom made garments that would suit the client’s needs, but also allow them to still embrace fashion as a creative part of their identity. Often beauty and function are at odds with one another, creating a frustrating dichotomy between ease and expression. By understanding the needs of particular members of the disabled community, the designers were able to create clothing that is both accessible and aesthetic.
While there have been discussions about remounting the fashion show, it became important to preserve the clothing and the experiences from the first show. Epicenter Community (now the Transformative Culture Project) collaborated with VSA Massachusetts to celebrate the Fashion Accessibility Project by mounting an exhibit at the VSA gallery. Not only does this exhibit honor the first fashion show, but allows for a space to continue the conversation of accessible fashion, expanding the dialogue to maternity clothing, gender, and sizing.
The Fashion Accessibility Project declares that fashion is political. It’s a form of expression and protest and the project is an example of how visibility leads to urgent conversations and then to action. For example, substituting buttons for magnetic closures, creating skirts that encompass wheelchairs, and even using elastic waistbands rather than traditional pant closures are all aspects of clothing able-bodied individuals may not even consider. But beyond making these accommodations, it was vital to ensure that these garments still remained on trend and allowed the wearer to not only feel confident, but to know that they were empowered with choice. To be able to accommodate both form and function is not a reality for many in the fashion world. Choosing a jacket may seem like a simple act, but in the end it still is a choice. For those with disabilities, the choices are limited and the Fashion Accessibility Project is just the gateway to expanding choice and moving forward in the fashion world.
ArtsEmerson has become increasingly aware of how to best serve our patrons with disabilities. From adding open captioning performances and introducing ASL interpretation into our show schedules, we have been so grateful for the learning experience and to make sure our venues and events remain accessible to all. Preparing for the Fashion Accessibility Project last summer, it was vital to create a space that was accessible for everyone, from ensuring that the ASL interpreter was in clear view and not placed off to the side, creating table space that allowed a seat for all and establishing traffic patterns to suit the needs of anyone who chose to attend. Of course, we have more improvements to make, especially since our venues are in older buildings. Opportunities like the Fashion Accessibility Project are perfect examples of empowering artists and communities to take up the dialogue and commit to change. As the project moved to its current exhibit, Michelle Guan (a member of the ArtsEmerson production team) provided ground plans and materials that contributed to the design of the space for the fashion show last summer. They serve now as an educational resource for future space transformations and design choices to keep in mind while creating accessible spaces.
Through the Fashion Accessibility Project, we begin to think beyond compliance but specifically about the human beings and humility of accessibility. It’s a moment to put yourself in this learning space and help to create a world that allows choice and expression for all.
The Fashion Accessibility Project Exhibit is open until August 3rd at the VSA Open Gallery (89 South St. Suite 101) from 9-5 Monday through Friday.
For more information about accessibility at ArtsEmerson, please feel free to visit our accessibility page on our website or call our box office for more information.
For more information about the VSA Fashion Accessibility Project, please visit their website.
Photos by Blair Nodelman and Todd McNeel