Special techniques are needed to design clothes for wheelchair users. The ROM showcases them in a unique exhibition
“It’s the most difficult exhibition I’ve ever done,” says Royal Ontario Museum senior curator Alexandra Palmer, a professor of fine art history, of Fashion Follows Form: Designs for Sitting.
Her challenge was how to get people to stop and look at things that appear “completely conventional – which is the point” – but understand that the way the clothes are cut out and put together is unconventional. The exhibit includes both modern and historic clothing.
Palmer (BA 1979 Victoria) was inspired by the IZ Adaptive fashion line for adults in wheelchairs, created by award-winning designer Izzy Camilleri. “I was very struck by what she was doing,” Palmer says. Designing for a seated person presents complicated requirements – ease of dressing and safety, of course, but each garment must be adapted to avoid tightness under and around the body, bunching over the lap and sloppy hems, just for starters. Because Camilleri is so good at her work, Palmer says, “All of that vanishes.” But the designer’s magic becomes evident in a tailored trench coat displayed on both a standing and on a sitting form. The diagonal, almost avant-garde drape of the hem on the former straightens neatly across the lap on the latter.
Palmer points out that the exhibit’s roster of high profile contributors – ranging from artists to engineers to athletes – all use wheelchairs, a difficult reminder that any of us may someday shift from standing and walking to sitting. Even so, people “are embracing the subject matter,” she says, and finding it “emotionally moving.” And it helps everyone understand, she adds, that “fashion is social.”