Everybody gets dressed—but how can fashion be a tool of social justice?
This week, Kayla and Kristina sit down with Dr. Ben Barry, Chair of Fashion at Ryerson University. We talk about how we can imagine fashion beyond ‘the ideal body,’ how Ben and others are working to diversify fashion education, and how we can crip fashion, meaning create desirable clothes made by and for disabled people. We speak about how a co-created relaxed fashion show came together through education and Instagram prowess, how Ben’s current research project, Cripping Masculinity, has adapted during COVID-19, and how access to fashion is access to life: to employment, community, desire, and safety. Ben talks about who he looks to in fashion justice leadership. We wrap up this conversation by noting how joy is found both when we take off our shoes, and when our institutions make systemic change.
“Fashion has been appropriated, misrepresented and misused as a result of colonization and slavery. Fashion is really about telling stories, telling histories, living in our bodies, building community and relationships. That’s the role of fashion and has been the role of fashion since time immemorial on the land that I’m on, which is Indigenous land.”
Curl up with your favourite quarantine attire, and prepare to ask yourself some deep questions about how and why we all wear what we do.
Narrator: You are listening to a Wheels on the Ground production.
[Jazz music playing]
Kristina McMullin [KM]: Hello, and welcome to the third episode of Crip Times!
Yousef: Today on Crip Times, we will be listening to Ben Barry, the chair of the Ryerson University’s school of fashion. With your hosts, Kristina and Kayla.
[KM]: So today on the podcast we have one of my favourite humans, Ben Barry. I’ve known Ben for almost eight years now and for those eight years he’s been a leader in fashion, in social change, in just how to be a good person in the world, and I’ve had the privilege of working with him as a student and a research assistant. I’m really excited to get to share this expertise, this knowledge, this way of being in the world. So, Ben, thank you so much for being a guest on Crip Times. I couldn’t have done this podcast without having you on here and getting to share you with this community. So, thank you.
Ben Barry [BB]: Thank you for that introduction. The feeling is completely mutual. I would want to interview you on all of these themes too. But I’m really excited and thanks for inviting me on.
KM: Amazing and, obviously, there are going to be people who don’t know you as well as I know you. So, could you introduce yourself to our listeners and transcript readers?
BB: Yeah. Hi everyone. I’m Ben Barry. I use He/Him pronouns. I am a white settler who is disability identified with low vision. I am Chair and Associate Professor in the School of Fashion at Ryerson and my work, um, really for my entire life has been to stretch and expand the depth of the definition of fashion towards justice and liberation.
KB: Whew. What an intro. No small order but obviously you are out there doing it so… that’s fantastic! And so, as we are recording this it’s September 3rd so a lot of us are in back-to-school mode and Ben, obviously I know that’s on your mind. So, maybe you want to talk a little bit about what that looks like in these pandemic times and how you are feeling.
BB: Yeah, I think for so many schools we’ve been faced with how to deliver a curriculum remotely. It’s especially challenging in a program like fashion, where so much of the program isn’t lecture based or essay based. Um, but it’s about making. It’s about engaging what the sense is with materials and creating. Often creating with, and for bodies, and so figuring out how we can do that virtually is an experiment. But an exciting one! So, we’ve really spent the summer sending machines, materials, equipment to our students across Canada and trying to just imagine how we can create remotely.
KB: Wow. That’s really cool.
KM: For folks who don’t follow you on Instagram you posted an absolutely beautiful caption kind of encapsulating what you just mentioned. What was important to you about posting kind of these intentions so public? Not only for your student, but even your community.
BB: Yeah, I wrote an introductory which I do every semester. It’s a welcome introduction in to the new year. But I think for this year there were really two points I wanted to make. The first was recognizing that moving to a remote semester is pretty unsettling and particularly unsettling in a time of global pandemic and racial injustice. So, my goal was for students to know that they will be treated and worked in a way that exercises total compassion and flexibility. In ways that recognize that working from home is really stressful. It can be really isolating. It can be pretty inequitable. And so, the expectation is that everyone does their best and recognizing that best is really different depending on your circumstance, right? Depending on your experiences your living situation, your financial security, and so many other factors. I’m really wanting to reassure people that we understand that and we are there to support them. But, also, recognizing that creative and fashion being creative work, can really move the world and so yes. I recognize we are feeling unsettled and nervous and exhausted. But how, and in what ways can we tap into this moment? To influence our work. What possibilities can our work open up? What stories can we tell? How can we move the world through what we create? And recognizing that fashion is, and can be, part of social change. And so how can we do that right now in the classroom? To move the world in a way that it needs to move right now.
KB: Yeah, I think perhaps some of our listeners or readers might be thinking what the heck does fashion have to do with social change and social justice? Fashion is often discredited, right? As a trivial aspect of society, you are something frivolous. And, so, why…. what does fashion have to do with disability arts and with justice in this moment and how might we all tap into that a little bit?
BB: I think that’s such a great question. Such a great place to start this conversation. Um, because fashion is really been appropriated and misrepresented and misused as a result of colonization and slavery. Fashion is really about telling stories, telling histories, living in our bodies, building community and relationships. That’s the role of fashion and the role of fashion in time in memorial on the land I’m on is indigenous land. But because of colonization and slavery, fashion was corrupted and tied to this idea of modernity and industrialization and seen as being born and only existing in Eu-rope. So, this sort of dominance and hegemony of a few fashion brands in Europe started to take over. Anything that wasn’t European, anything that wasn’t white was banned, was written off as simply clothing or ethnic dress or costume. Seen as something that was “tradition, historic and now extinct”. And, because of that story, fashion was then reborn in this way that was super exclusive, super narrow and super limiting. So, very few people could engage with fashion and those people who couldn’t engage in fashion did it at the cost and expense and so many other people. So many other cultures. So many other laborers and of course, our planet. And because of that kind of rebirth of fashion, in a form that was really dominating and exclusive, it’s made so many of us feel completely alienated because fashion isn’t created or designed for our bodies. It isn’t accessible at our price points; we don’t see ourselves represented in fashion whether it’s on a runaway or whether it’s in who serves as editors and designers and creative directors. Um, and it’s been used in this way really to exercise power and power over other people. And I think because of that, so many of us feel just really intimidated by fashion and I think really, and rightly so, hostile to fashion because it’s been such an exclusionary force.
BB: But I really, and so much of the work I do in teaching and my own thinking, I try to go back to what fashion always has been and what it was. This really fluid and expansive idea of how we tell stories and engage with community and think and dress and live in our bodies. That’s what fashion really was at the start and that’s I think what needs to be reclaimed when we think about fashion and social justice.
KM: Wow. I want to go back and do a Bachelors in Fashion Communication once again just to hear that lecture every day.
KM: I don’t even know what my next question is going to be I just want to like sit and resonate on that.
BB: Yeah, it’s a lot. But I think it’s important because I think that idea of fashion has really been used to divide and to create hierarchy. Right? A part of colonial white filler project. And I think it’s so important to try to move away from that. I think what’s exciting is there is so much happening in the fashion space. It is being reclaimed and I know we’ll talk about Queer Crip designers doing that. Sage Paul and indigenous fashion in Toronto. An incredible group of indigenous designers that are fostering resurgence through fashion. And so, so, so much more. But I think part of it is yes, it’s happening in the world. But also, how can that happen in fashion school? How can fashion school and fashion education be a place where BIPOC disability identified folks that have just been marginalized from fashion feel welcomed into the space? To draw from their lived experience. Draw from their histories. From their narratives. From their bodies and create. Create clothes that really tell stories and allow other people to live in their bodies the way that they want. And so much of my work as a fashion educator is about how do we create that space. How do we create a space through curriculum that is inclusive and that represents the diversity of students? How do we create a culture where people feel they don’t need to hide aspects of who they are but they can really bring their whole diverse intersectional selves to the classroom and to the studio and feel that that will be respected and honored and cared for? And, I don’t think we are fully there yet. I think there’s a lot of work to do. But that’s certainly the journey we are on. I think if we can model that in fashion education, we can create a community world views, practices, that then bring that out into the world. Whether that’s in industry whether that’s in community or whether that’s in everyday dressing. But ways to really bring fashion back to, as I said, it always was.
KB: Yeah, maybe that’s a good place for us to talk about how actually all three of us in this conversation have done work on relaxed performance. Um, which has its origins in the theatre world and opening up theatre and performance spaces to be as accessible as possible to as many bodies as possible. And you took on this really exciting project of bringing relaxed performance to a fashion show. Um, which is completely magical. So maybe you want to talk about what that process looked like?
BB: Yeah. That… This all came about through, really, Kristina who introduced me to the folks at British Council at Cripping the Arts who were engaging in this really exciting project, as you know. On bringing relaxed performance to the classroom and seeing how that gets taken up in education. And so, we decided to bring this to a fashion event planning class. To imagine what a fashion show could be like if we started with accessing the foundation. So, not building a show and then adding access on as sort of after the fact. But what happens when we create and design from a place of access to start? How does that then access open up and become an esthetic? How does access become a way of thinking and doing and way of engaging? So, that was really the goal of the class and it was a class that was combined class of undergraduate and graduate fashion students. Some of them had lived experience with disability but others did not and others and most of them had never studied disability studies before. So, the course was sort of this balance of introducing them to this disability studies and Crip theory alongside fashion event planning and imagining what these worlds would look like together.
KB: And so, I know that you invited models, right? You did an open call for disabled models?
BB: Yeah, so the students were divided into teams. So, teams looked after, an overall team to look over access, production, models and casting, styling, and promotion. And thinking about Crip theory and disability justice it was really important that this show wasn’t just going to be created with students but really be co-created with community. So, the students did a call out to disability and Deaf identified folks and disability justice allies encouraging them to model for the fashion show and to help create the fashion show.
BB: And in return there would be an honorarium and a way for them to really help create this space and really just through putting a kind of call out on Instagram it was pretty incredible the response. We had twenty-nine folks ranging in all types of lived experience who participated in the show. They picked their own outfits that they felt best expressed them and told the story of who they were. And they had a chance to put together some words about what those outfits meant and how they would describe them and how they would describe themselves which was used for the audio description and also in the program. So, it was a really an experiment because this had not been done before to the best of my knowledge where a show used access as a start place – ugh. Starting point. Because of that it wasn’t like a traditional fashion show the one might imagine. With the runway and models coming down the runway and going back in this very kind of orderly fashion. Lights on the runway. Every-thing else is dark. Complete quiet. It was a space where models could move about as they moved about. The audience could move about as they moved about. Lights were similar throughout the space and really trying to imagine what could a space look like that all bodies could be in and all bodies felt welcome in.
KM: Yeah, and I was obviously at that show and it was so evident that folks felt welcome throughout the entire process. Not only models not only audience members but even like folks who were providing access. It was such a success from my perspective. Um, how did you feel that like a Crip politic and Crip esthetic are not only like influencing the fashion education, but really the end product your students are creating now that you kind of brought that into your leadership at the school?
BB: I think… I think the change that we’re hoping to make or I’m hoping that, you know with my colleagues and with the students, we can make is move from this idea in fashion of adaptive fashion to really Crip fashion. I think, what I mean by that is so often when we think or we see fashion and disability in the industry in the world it’s often been designed from a place of adapting. Which means that something is designed for a non-disabled body, a non-disabled user, that’s the finished product and then it’s modified. It’s shifted. It’s changed. It’s adapted for disabled wearers and users.
BB: And so, what that does (in many ways) is it one, it’s creates this hierarchy where sort of non-disabled bodies are the starting place at the top and anything else is an add on or changed from that. But it also completely limits creativity and possibility because you’ve already, like, really narrowed and limited this starting place from which we create and design. In something as fun and experimental and creative as fashion, how boring it is to do that? How uninspiring and exciting? And so, where I think I want to see movement is this place where we start with disabled bodies and disabled users and disabled experiences. That is the starting place for possibility and creativity and ways of being in the world. And we design from those places whether we are creating events, whether we are creating strategies in businesses and fashion, whether we are creating clothing. But it’s really about recognizing there’s so many possibilities and let’s start from a place of possibility and start from a place of bodies in all their diversity, rather than just starting from a place of one body and one way of being in the world. That’s really where I want to see our curriculum and the fashion industry move. Um, yeah.
KB: Yeah, oh my god. That would change my life. You know? As a young disabled woman, especially thinking about shoes and foot wear. Oh my gosh. Like, the adaptive or accessible options for those kinds of things if you have to wear like leg braces for example were just absolutely nonexistent growing up. And even still, shopping can be really really challenging. So, that’s just one example. But, yeah. I think it would like change peoples like abilities to move through the world and to feel like good in themselves and like they have options. You know? Beyond one orthopedic pair of shoes for example.
BB: Yeah. I think we sort of talked at the beginning of, like, when I talked about how fashion was really stronghold to this sort of one definition. Part of that wasn’t just defining fashion as European and white but defining fashion as belonging to one body, right? A thin, white, non-disabled, cis-gender body. That was the body that fashion was designed for. That was the starting place. That is a body that is fashionable. Right? That’s the top of the hierarchy.
BB: And as a result, everything is then sort of adapted to fit quote “other bodies”. But, the fashionable body, the fashion body is still that one ideal and I think that’s really what we need to move away from. To open up these possibilities and recognize that there doesn’t, right? It’s also not about replacing this one body with another body or saying that, ‘Alright. We want to get rid of a size two model and replace them with a size 18 model as the new ideal or standard.’
BB: It’s recognizing that all bodies are different. We need… like liberation is moving away from a hierarchy completely and recognizing that there are a variety and diversity of bodies in the world. How can we design with bodies as they are and recognize there are going to be multiple designs? Multiple clothing styles. Multiple fits. That fit the diversity of bodies that are. And I think that that’s really the movement. Obviously, we can see how that then works better for the environment. Works better for a multiplicity of entrepreneurs. Doesn’t hoard wealth with a few corporations. Like all of this really is how fashion creates economic justice, environmental justice, social justice, it’s all connected. But this is really the move and the change. Rebirth Garments is a great brand out of Chicago and their brand that is disability, size, gender inclusive. All the garments they create are custom garments based on bodies that order them and their needs. And I think Rebirth really in many ways provides a model of how… where design needs to go and how design needs to move. Their aesthetic is also about radical visibility so for them it’s really about neon. It’s about geometry. It’s about colour. It’s about spandex. It’s about claiming bodies and claiming space. Their fashion shows take audio descriptions of garments and models and mix them into, really like, into music. And to beats for the soundtrack. So, in many ways, they are path breaking. I think that’s the future of where I’d like to see fashion go and I think that’s really inspiring for fashion students, because it shows the possibilities that exist for them and where they can go. I’m teaching a course this semester that’s called design justice. Which is a brand-new course that I’ve developed. It’s a course that really is about how can students create de-signs to start from bodies where they are at a small scale. That’s about collaboration and ultimately creating designs that shift power and structure in the world. Yeah. So, it’s this really new way of thinking about design that I think works with bodies in the environment in the world. And not just in a respectful way, but in a way that even in a small scale creates this kind of transformation that we want to see. That I want to see and that many of my students want to see.
KB: And its mind blowing to me that that’s not standard. That, you know, it’s (to my limited knowledge) it sounds like fashion education is still working to that so-called European norm. It’s re-ally, really frightening. But [laughs] yeah.
BB: Yeah, it’s not unlike so many disciplines where we look at history or English. You know. What we teach in high school in elementary schools. We tell this sort of single history, single group of authors, single stories, rather than these parallel histories and parallel stories and parallel narratives. And I think so much particularly for fashion. Fashion education was so built on serving industry, really preparing students with the skills and the knowledge that industry had as it was, as it is. Um, so they could get jobs. Rather than seeing fashion education as a place that should actively challenge and reimagine industry to prepare students for where industry should be. Not where it is. And I think that’s the shift and that’s certainly the shift as chair at Ryerson I’m trying to bring about with my col-leagues. And I know other fashion educators are also seeing that shift. Um, I think the other thing I want to say when we are thinking about fashion and how many people really can’t find clothes for them or accessories for them. It’s also thinking about who is designing? Right. Who is creating? And how does fashion school buy its curriculum and structure and space and all of these other things, right? That are required to complete a degree automatically limits access. So automatically only invites certain bodies to become fashion students and then move into the industry. And immediately exclude other bodies from even literally entering the front door. And so, I think that that is also a part of the shift in change, is that fashion schools need to also ground all they are doing in access to invite in more students who will become the next creatives and designers and business leaders and can draw on their own lived experiences of being in the world. The lived experiences of their family and friends and their communities and create. And I think that that’s also part of this change, is that fashion education for so many reasons has been so exclusionary of who can even enter that front door that part of it then is really getting rid of those barriers and reimagining the starting place. So, the designers and creatives and business leaders who exist, reflect a diverse group of people.
KB: Right. Because the process of fashion creation is so physical often. Right? So embodied. So, I wonder when you are talking about, like, you are sending out tools to students right now learning remotely. If there is any examples of sort of adaptive tools for creation that you’ve come across or that some of your students might be experimenting with?
BB: Yeah. Um, well so much, I think. This is a really good question. And I think one, there’s not. And a lot of that is because the industry has really, up until now, never really considered disability in an authentic and real, and I think, systemic way. Um, and I think that that’s really been a loss to the possibilities and creativity that opens up. But also, I think (again coming from this white colonial idea) that the fashion industry glorifies one designer as a genius. So, one designer creates a collection. One designer needs to be this all-knowing person who has to create a collection every season. A col-lection that will work for all different types of bodies. They get the credit, the glory, the recognition. So, fashion again is really built on this really single star system and how much pressure and stress is that on one person? A lot. As we’ve seen with fashion students and fashion designers go through, and the incredible burn out because of this single star system. But it also really doesn’t honor the possibilities that collaboration and interdependence bring us. Right? And, I mean, I think nobody knows this better than the disability community. And I think that’s also part of the shifting design, is how can design be about collaboration? Why are we celebrating one person as the designer, rather than de-signing in groups where people bring different knowledge, different skills, different ideas and they bring those together to create a collection in clothing. And not only does that allow everyone to con-tribute in their own ways, but that also takes a lot of pressure off one person. Results in a lot less burnout, and I think creates something way more inspiring, exciting, and useful. And so that’s so much of also a place we are trying to move our curriculum to. Where design isn’t seen as this single source and this single designer, but design becomes about collaboration. And so then, how does that offer more access to folks to come in and contribute in ways that work for them? And also, that shift in curriculum will also allow us to really authentically invite and welcome in more people to fashion and then hopefully more people to the industry.
KM: Yeah, I think what you said about Crip community really leaning into collaboration and inter-depend seems to be so true. Like, I always thought I was such an independent person. But it was just because I like to actually have Crip community and now that I work in Crip community the idea of doing something alone seems like the worst idea ever. Because I don’t have the best ideas. I think teaching students that like collaboration isn’t a negative aspect and it doesn’t seep negatively on, like, their own ideas and own agency, but really that collaboration is a way to enhance and interdependent-ness. Kind of exchange of ideas. Exchange of labour. Exchange of support. Exchange of care. It does really benefit the creative process and just your heart process.
BB: Completely. It’s such… I think a loss to fashion and the world when we value so much on this myth of independence. I think we have lost a lot and harmed a lot because of that and I think in so many creative spaces there is this value on this single artist. And what happens when we shift that? What opens up? And certainly, in my space in fashion that’s really one of the goals is I really want to move away from that myth because it’s limited possibilities but it also creates so much harm. And how can we then really start to create an interdependent environment in this design justice class? The very first assignment that I’ve created was this mutual aid and collective care assignment. Where students will work in teams to think about, um, how… how they can come up with an offering in service to the class. They can all support each other and together create sort of collective care. But all bringing something based on their own experience and their own creativity to support each other. And, as a way, really to highlight the design needs to move away from this idea that this independent all-knowing one person. It’s so self-sufficient. It can totally take care of themselves. To this idea of community care collective care and interdependence. And what happens when we can support each other we each value what we can each bring and we bring that together. So yeah. That’s sort of what I’m trying to think because I think that would make a better just fashion culture and community.
KB: Or just a like, a better learning community for any of us. Um, if all classes started that way, I think the culture would look really really different.
KM: So, Ben, I obviously know that you are working on a project right now entitled Cripping Masculinity because I work with you on it. Um, and we definitely have to shift the process, given that we are all remote working. As kind of like the leader of this project… director, whatever your title is that I should know. Um, what has been kind of like the thought process for you on how your kind of readapting the process of this project. Not only for the rest of the research team but also for our research participants and the community at large.
BB: Yeah. I’m going to put – I know you are going to have show notes right.
KM: Oh Yes.
KB: Yes. Yeah. Yeah
BB: So, in the show notes I will add a reference where I was inspired by this assignment for this amazing author from this book Building Access. And I also will add something on Cripping Masculinity for people that are interested in learning more. But this is really a project that I think aims to take everything we are talking about right now and put that into practice. It’s engaging a group of Deaf, Disability and Mad identified, Cis and Trans men, non-binary masculine identified folks in creating fashion. So, it’s about understanding their experiences in the world through fashion. It’s about dreaming up their ideal outfit that would fit their bodies and express who they are. That they would love to wear. Letting them really lead the process, but work in collaboration with fashion design students to bring that into the world and onto their body. And then produce, with them, a fashion show. Completely accessible fashion show and exhibition to tell these stories and showcase these incredible clothing that they’ve made. And that’s what the projects about it’s really the start to put into practice this new way of making fashion and highlight the role of fashion in expansively telling our stories and histories of gender and identity in all their diversity. That’s really the point and to really imagine what that is like and what that is for a variety of Disability, Deaf and Mad identified folks. So, the first part of this project was wardrobe interviews. Where we were going into people’s houses asking them to show us their clothes and talk about their clothes that were in their drawers. Hung in their closet. Where were they from? What do they mean to them? Where do they wear them? What stories to they tell? As a result of COVID and social distancing, we had to transition that online and so we are doing digital wardrobe interviews over zoom and asking people to show us their clothes, talk about their clothes, through this virtual format.
BB: And I think so far, it’s working well. But I do miss the materiality. I do miss the tactile nature of clothes. As someone with low vision the tactile nature of clothing is so important. The embody nature of clothing is so important to me. And the visual just doesn’t really capture it. I’m so interested in how clothes feel, how clothes, what they are like on the skin, how they fit the body. And so, we’re making this work to see how this goes, but recognizing that this is not going to tell the whole story. That a digital wardrobe interview won’t work for everyone. So, hopefully we will be able to go back to in person wardrobe interviews soon enough. Particularly for the folks that’s going to be better for. And hopefully by the time we do our design workshops, that will be back in person. Because it is one of these things where we talk about fashion being about community, and part of that community is being connected to bodies and being connected to the land through the tactile nature of clothes. Right? Clothes that come from the earth that are made with others and that we wear on our skin. And so, this transition is working from a ‘needing to move the project along standpoint’, but I certainly also mourn that something isn’t there and I’m excited to have that next stage and have that stage where we can engage in the tactile and physical nature of clothing again.
KB: Yeah, absolutely. Um, speaking of clothing on zoom I know you also recently published a piece looking at how masculinity and its presentation has shifted with work from home and with remote working. Is that right?
BB: Yeah. I wrote a blog post for Gender and Society which is like a blog. It’s connected to an academic journal where I publish. Thinking about what, how clothing changes for Zoo – thinking about the body and gender on Zoom. And I think I would love if we could all dress any way we want in the world and claim radical visibility. Like, Rebirth Garments. Like their collection. Just be that way in the world. But I also recognize that that is not possible for many folks who face harassment and attack and violence and death because of their bodies and the way those bodies are dressed. Um, and so much of clothing and dressing in ways that meet social expectation does allow access to jobs, to romance, to social scenes, to life.
BB: And so, in this way clothing is not… is not just frivolous. Is not just fun. Is not just about self-expression. But it’s about attending a funeral or wedding, it’s about getting that job and earning in-come. It’s about finding a partner and accessing desire. Right? Clothing provides that for folks in the world. And particularly, particularly for folks and disabled folks who face marginalization and stigmatization and exclusion that clothing can help me ease entrench social norms and expectations. And so, in all of my talk about fashion being creative and fun, I don’t want to deny about how clothing is also this access to life for us and that particularly for BIPOC disabled folks. So, I really think that clothing then also serves that purpose and so that’s also part of this conversation. Now, I don’t remember your question and I went on a tangent.
KB: No, that’s perfect. I was just mainly just asking about that article which you chatted about. May-be you want to share what some of those findings were. How people’s sense of fashion may or may not have shifted with working on zoom and we are all visible from generally the shoulders up? What we might’ve found socially? What’s going with people’s fashion right now?
BB: Well, I can talk from my own experience that I really haven’t worn pants since March 15. Or shoes!
KB & KM: [laugh]
BB: So, what I think this allows us to do is it allows us to do two things. I think one it allows us to wear clothes that are comfortable on our bodies that actually fit. The fabric feels good, that don’t constrain or cut off or are just uncomfortable. Really fabric and fits that work without needing to worry about these social norms and expectations that I can’t wear jogging pants. Or I can’t wear track pants or I can’t wear shorts or leggings to this particular situation, because no one will know. They are only seeing me from the head up. And so, in some ways, how does that open up, um, opportunity and possibility for folks that do not have access or that just do not have clothing that exist for them. Based on their bodies for this social context to be in spaces where normally there would be significant stigmatization or significant exclusion because at least the bottom part of our clothing is no longer being seen.
BB: Um, but then my sort of deeper thinking was also in what ways does this with… you know if we go back in some ways to meeting in person. What ways does that entrance deeper inequities? We’re then expecting that when we are back, things are going to be the same because we think that person might be wearing dress pants or might be wearing something more quote “appropriate” for that place that we don’t even think about it. But then we come back and expect the world to be the same and guess what? There’s still no dress pants. There’s still no skirts or dresses that are available and designed for me.
KB: Structured bras? Hello!
BB: Yeah. Right? Like all of these things. What’s then going to happen? Like, so I think then the hope in all of this is that there will be this deep learning that in some ways the pandemic and social distancing and remote working allows bodies to be bodies in their spaces as they are. And how can we then take that, rather than hide that in the home, bring that out into the world in ways that are respected and valued and just free of safety and attack? And so, I think that that’s really the hope is. That well bodies are going to dress the way they are going to dress in ways that work for them. And there’s this division between home dress and professional dress, who does that serve? Who even created that division? Right? Because if we think of professional dress, so much of that is based on this white European masculine Cis gendered male standard of heterosexual standard of dress, right? And certainly, like as a Queer disabled man I’ve never felt connected to that. I’ve always felt uncomfortable in ties and blazers but certainly when I was first hired at Ryerson, I felt I needed to wear a blazer every day to work. I needed to project that quote “authority”. That masculine authority. And as I really become more secure in my position, I’ve been able to play a lot more. But recognizing that that is really limiting and constricting and it doesn’t allow us to dress as we want to dress in ways that work for us. And if we are not doing that, then we are not really bringing our creativity and value to the spaces that we are in because we are feeling we need to play a part or hide aspects of ourselves. And then, right, that’s… there’s something really lost when we do that. And not that we have a choice, right? We’re, in many ways, we are working within these structures that exist. It’s not that we have a choice. We recognize that to quote “exist” in these spaces, this is what we have to do to exist. Um, but yeah. I’m hoping that then some of the learning of the pandemic is that we’ll just have a bet-ter appreciation that people are going to dress in so many ways and that this idea of professional dress is amazing for some folks in some bodies. They are going to dress like that on their zoom calls be-cause, yes.
BB: But for others it’s totally not who they are. It’s not comfortable. It doesn’t express who they are. It limits who they are. And so those folks should dress in the way they want to exist as well.
KB: Yeah. I so feel you on the blazer thing. As a young disabled woman who is very small and looks very young, I also feel like I have to like almost age myself up a little bit depending on the context to be taken seriously professional. Because if I like limp into a room my assumption is that people are going to be, ‘are you waiting for your mom?’ [laughs] Like, you know? Like, ‘oh you are the one here to facilitate this thing? I didn’t know.’ So, doing some of that signaling that way. But, yeah. Thank you for that food for thought. I think that’s on a lot of people’s minds recently and I hope yeah. I hope we can kind of reject some of that rigid professionalization as we move forward.
BB: I hope so. And I hope people that, like particularly quote “leaders” in like work places they really open up that conversation just as much as we’re hoping to have a conversation about is there going to be this hybrid between remote working? Can people actually work from home rather than have to come in everyday? I hope that conversation about quote “dress” and professional dress and what to wear also is part of that. Because that’s also a big barrier for so many folks to working in and to bringing themselves to work and even existing in that space. And so, I hope that’s part of this conversation. Because I think so many people have really found value in dressing ways they want to dress and comfortably. And what that does and how that feels on the body and how you feel in the body when you are dressed in ways that work for you. That I hope we can honor that and bring that for-ward with us. I hope that becomes a real conversation in workspaces as we move forward.
KB: Mmhmm. And the time saved from not having to, like, perform professionalization or femininity. Like, the time it takes to get ready to go into the office versus to work from home is also huge.
BB: Completely. Completely. And I think, yeah. And part of the conversation on clothing is also particularly for talking about a masculine work space (or a workspace that has been masculinized). Is this idea that in addition to fashion being seen or I mean you sort of said at the beginning there’s this idea that fashion has been in this sort of European thought. It’s been cast off as something that’s vain and frivolous and ultimately feminine and not masculine. And so, right, why should we care about clothing? Why should we talk about clothing? Clothing isn’t important.
If you are even thinking about clothing in the body, right, that opens up ideas if you are thinking about body this exposes ideas of vulnerability of femininity and how does that work in organizations in workplaces that have been defined so rigidly as masculine? And particularly when the majority of leaders are men, still, thank the patriarchy and there being white men. Right? For them even to open up a conversation around clothing or what you are going to wear to dress or questioning that. It’s something that for many white straight men, white straight non-disabled men in these roles they don’t have the language or vocabulary. They’ve never been taught to do that. Then thinking about fashion, talking about fashion perhaps, or does then jeopardize a sense of masculinity, and then there’s this real nervousness and vulnerability in doing that. So, I think even having those conversation when I said yes let’s have a conversation around clothes, I also recognize that that is not always possible given these structures of gender that exist and who is in these roles and how they’ve been brought up and what they’ve been taught a leader should and shouldn’t talk about. So, yeah. I mean fashion is so integral in all of these systems and structures in many ways. That we may not often, you know, think about. But I think what we do think about and we realize it because we do get dressed. In the day. We do wear clothes. And those clothes in some way, right, whether we are thinking about what we want to wear or just about how the clothes fit and feel on our bodies right? Like that tactile experience. All of those are just part of the role clothes play in our lives and everyone’s lives in some way.
KM: So, Ben you talked a lot today about like these big changes that we want to see in the fashion industry and fashion education. Who are some leaders that you look towards for inspiration on these changes that you would like to see in the industry?
BB: I think there’s really two leaders that I look to. And I look to them for different reasons. I think justice and liberation in fashion is about creating a Crip fashion community and Crip fashion industry. While simultaneously changing existing dominant fashion systems that are grounded in ableism and able-bodiedness. And Sinead Burke is an incredible fashion activist, speaker, educator, who has really intervened into the core of the dominant fashion industry.
Being on the cover of UK Vogue, with being the editor at large at UK Vogue, speaking of the business of fashion, writing prolific pieces for industry, is a disability identified woman who has advocated about the need for fashion to welcome in disabled bodies. Her work has been profound in creating conversation and creating change. When she was on the cover of the business of fashion magazine she worked with Burberry and they recreated a trench coat to fit her. And other fashion brands have done this with her for different events, for different shoots, and I think in many ways this is about teaching designers something that they’ve never done before that they don’t know and exposing the creativity and possibilities. And in many ways, she’s working with them in this collaborative and interdependent way to bring this to this new way of designing. So, it’s not only her activism as a thought leader really, but I think her activism working with designers to create clothes for her body to guide them through that process and to teach them and I have so much respect for how she does that.
Sky Cubacub is the creative director of Rebirth Garments and I’ve talked about them before on the podcast. They have created this disability, gender, size inclusive label that is designed custom for each body that orders them. And I think what I love about Sky and Rebirth is that they are creating this Crip fashion community. Creating fashion on their own terms. Refusing the dominant western able-bodied fashion system and saying that this is what fashion is for me, for my community, and this is what I want to create on our own terms.
And I think those two approaches, the approach of changing and transforming the dominant system but also refusing that dominant system and creating your own system are both necessary to bring about disability justice and liberation. And I think that those are really two individuals in fashion that are doing that. And I think that’s a model I really want to hold dear because so often I think, and again in this binary thinking we’ve been taught, we think that you have to either just refuse the system or work within the system. But I think that you actually need both. You need equity and liberation simultaneously. So, I think that those are two approaches to creating change and fashion that I think are going to have material impacts on disability communities. By creating clothing, by creating jobs, by creating representation, and ultimately changing attitudes, perspective, and possibilities.
KM: Amazing. Thank you so much for all the expertise you’ve shared with us and our listeners. We like to end Crip time on a bit of a positive and uplifting note. So, we have two last questions for you. And the first one is what is your dream? What is your vision? What is your hope for the future of fashion, fashion education and the industry at large?
BB: My dream for fashion is that we go back to what fashion always was. A place to dress multiple bodies, tell multiple stories, celebrate multiple histories, engage with materials, and honor the land. That we recognize the harm that this capitalist colonial fashion system has caused and recognize that that’s not what fashion really was since the beginning. That’s not where fashion brings people joy. And that we go back to a place where we see a diversity of folks, including and centered, Deaf and disability identified folks as fashion creators, leaders, designers, and also clothes that are designed for all bodies that exist and how they want to exist. It’s a big vision but that’s really what I hope to see in my own very small little bubble. I hope that that’s what I can help make Ryerson fashion. A place where we can take that vision and maybe it’s not going to happen yet in the world. But at least in this little school and this little bubble, that’s what we can create. And that’s really my dream and my vision.
KM: Beautiful dream. A beautiful vision. It makes me so happy. And our very, very last question before we wrap up for the morning. In these unprecedented times we’ve seen a lot of changes and challenges and we are kind of inundated with negativity and news and our surroundings. What has been bringing you joy recently?
BB: I think there’s two things that have been bringing me joy. In a very personal embodied way, not wearing shoes.
KB: Yes. Retweet. Cosign! [laugh]
BB: It’s so nice to just let my, like, bare feet touch the floor. Not feeling constricted with socks or shoes that I usually feel. Yeah, it’s been very freeing.
BB: And calming and relaxing and just like wonderful. I just feel wonderful in my body by not wearing shoes and socks. I love that. And that’s bringing me a lot of joy as I do everything. So, yes, for not wearing shoes and socks and I will continue doing this remote semester. I think the second thing is in all of this tragedy and really deep reckoning with anti-black racism and injustice, I feel a sense of real hope. That the injustices in the world, some of them particularly around anti-black racism, have been exposed to an audience and to people who never understood them before or believed them before or engaged with them before. That there is a real conversation happening outside of communities that were already having that conversation, in a way that has possibility. And possibility for real change. And I think now is really the time, right? To see if we are not going to let these murders that have been ongoing been in vain. Or if we are going to take that learning and really make change. And I’m trying to hold onto the hope that this isn’t going to be in vain. There’s going to be learning and real concrete action that comes from this. And from what I’ve been seeing from fashion brands that are reaching out to us, from what’s happening at the university, I’m feeling hopeful. That institutions and systems and people are making change. So, that’s in all this tragedy not joy, but it’s bringing me hope and comfort.
[Jazz music plays]
KB: Crip times is presented as a part of the Wheels on the Ground podcast network. This podcast is produced by us and supported by Tangled Art Plus Disability and Bodies in Translation. If you enjoyed this interview, we release new episodes every Monday wherever good podcasts can be found.
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