Adrian Boteanu / Sun Staff Photographer

The exhibit sought to explore fashion through the lens of individuals with disabilities.

April 18, 2017

Disability Fashion Exhibit Brings Industry’s Newest Frontier to Cornell

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A new brand of fashion — one which embraces inclusivity, accessibility and personalization — went on display Monday at the opening for the Ad(dress)ing Ableism exhibit at the Jill Stuart Gallery.

Co-sponsored by Haven, the Cornell Women’s Resource Center and the Student Assembly, the exhibit sought to explore fashion through the lens of individuals with disabilities.

Students modeled dresses designed to respond to their unique needs as attendees read personal statements written on mirrors placed around the space, reflecting the way each model viewed their look and fashion’s role in disability awareness.

Event organizer and S.A. President Jordan Berger ’17 said she first conceived of the exhibit with her roommate Samantha Stern ’17 as a way to merge their passions for disability rights advocacy and fashion.

“We really wanted people to see that disability is visible and non-visible on campus, but that there are different ways to accommodate people besides just building a ramp,” Berger said.

Recognizing a lack of awareness of the “untapped industry” of disability fashion, designers Stern and Molly Kestenbaum ’17 set out to make functional and fashionable items that were accessible “without sacrificing style,” Kestenbaum said.

After securing funding from the Human Ecology Alumni Association, the designers set up consultations with the models, developing and sewing a final, personalized design.

“We sat down with them and [asked], ‘What about clothing is not accessible to you right now and how do we make it accessible?’” Stern said. “People were really excited to talk about what they needed in fashion and we were excited to design that.”

Each designer oversaw the sewing and designing of four looks and Kestenbaum also pursued a project inspired by a 60s aesthetic and her own experience with hearing devices.

Berger emphasized the power of the exhibit to promote disability awareness, celebrate individual experiences and “start a conversation” that is often uncomfortable or difficult to begin to articulate.

“It’s really exciting to have an event that talks about disability issues through an artistic medium,” said Nicole Agaronnik ’19, a disability rights activist who modeled a dress that had an intricate design of a spine to evoke her experience with scoliosis.

Agaronnik, a competitive ballroom dancer, said the event was a “celebration of disability pride” and allowed people to rethink disability not as something abnormal but rather as a variation of the human condition.

“This whole event will advance disability awareness because a lot of the clothes are for specific disabilities, but in general to see [people with disabilities] publicly being part of fashion, being part of life in a fashion show and being on display … is very important,” said Nadia Bon ’19, a participant who wore a pink and purple tie-dye dress.

Allison Milch ’18 modeled a belted dress with a skater skirt and a pocket to hold her insulin pump. Her type one diabetes makes dressing for formal events difficult, as she is often left without a place to put the device. That dress served as a “convenient way” for her to remove her insulin pump when she needed to, she said.

“[The exhibit] highlights a part of life as a person with a disability that everyone else has to deal with too: everyone has to deal with clothes, has different constraints and thinks about their clothes a lot,” added Julia Montejo ’17.

This type of accessible fashion is a transformative way to empower and allow for self-expression, according to Cat Tan ’18.

“Not only are there different types of disabilities represented but, from my own perspective, I think that it kind of breaks barriers in terms of what a disability can be,” she said. “It’s not permanent or static; it’s not hindering, or it doesn’t have to be.”

Disability as an aspect of diversity — a part of identity that is not necessarily defining and a unique experience to be celebrated — was a recurring theme in the exhibit.

Likewise, the lack of knowledge about disabilities is central to ableism and prejudice against disabled individuals, according to Alli Plache ’18, and this exhibit serves to spread information and “make it more known and accepted and normal.”

The exhibit’s close will not mark an end to the discussion of ableism in fashion on campus. Seated mannequins purchased for the exhibit will display the clothing and will ultimately become part of the Cornell Costume and Textile Collection to allow for a design process for the seated body that includes individuals in wheelchairs.

“I appreciate that they’re catering to individual needs and by catering to individual needs they are acknowledging that disability isn’t a one-size-fits-all thing,” Plache reiterated. “Acknowledging and seeing differences — that’s [what is most] important.”