Clutch Bags Are Out. And Other Things You Only Know If You’re Into Fashion And You’re Also Disabled

Alex Harwood is 26, loves clothes, and walks with crutches.


by Debrief Staff |
Published on

There’s a photo on my Mum’s dressing table at home of me playing toy cars with a boy called Luke. Even at three years old, I was the epitome of elegance dressed in a cream cable knit sweater and crimson jeans. Luke also looks pretty taken with the ensemble, having parked his yellow van in order to concentrate on it fully. And yet on my head is a bright orange leather rugby helmet, complete with chin protector, which flatly destroys the savvy balance of my otherwise enviable outfit. Even as a toddler, my sartorial flair was compromised by physical disability.

Here’s the bottom line: I was born with Cerebral Palsy. I walk with elbow crutches. I wear leg splints, have one leg shorter than the other, an oddly-shaped left hip, and terrible balance (the rugby helmet was to stop me cracking my skull). I am also a 26-year-old woman who loves fashion just as much as any of her able-bodied mates.

READ MORE: Why Ditching The Airbrush Makes Good Sense

Reconciling this desire with the limitations of my handicap is often a source of bitter frustration, with shoes being the most problematic part of my wardrobe. My leg splints, which I should wear every day, are black plastic, calf height, and fasten with velcro at the ankle and shin. The only shoes that will stretch over them are trainers, and men’s trainers at that.

I work as a translator, sometimes within international organisations. And there's nothing quite like slipping into a pencil skirt knowing I am about to stride down corridors of power, in which history has been made. The thrill can quickly fade, however, if I stop for too long to ponder the fact that complementing my finest tailoring are calf-high orthotics sitting inside men’s basketball trainers which look, to the unknowing eye, like they are five sizes too big.

Even when not wearing my splints, my shoe choice is limited. With my left leg two centimetres shorter than my right, I need shoes which can be easily taken apart and built up by a specialist. Thin, or elaborately, soled shoes are the unreachable. It’s splints, and my big black brogues or huge ugly trainers – or nothing. I often fantasise about pairing my white ankle-length trousers with a pair of delicate nude suede flats. My shoes don’t ‘finish’ an outfit, like we are told they are meant to, they act as an ugly centrepiece.

To combat this I try to dress as if my shoes don’t exist, clothing my body in whatever appeals and my feet in whatever is necessary to keep me upright and walking. I might get some funny looks by the coffee machine wearing a silk skirt and plastic callipers. But I have to remember that those callipers have kept me mobile enough to get to work in the first place. What’s a good looking pair of shoes in comparison?

READ MORE: Why Can't We Just Break Up With Our Clothes Already

Bags give rise to a whole new set of style challenges for the disabled woman. Walking with elbow crutches, it soon becomes clear that your arms are not, in fact, graceful perches for Louis Vuitton’s latest It bag. My arms are my legs. My arms are the engine that drives me from A to B. Moving constantly back and forth to place one crutch in front of another, my shoulders are unable to provide a stable resting place for a shoulder bag, which falls immediately to the ground, as my arms continue to propel me forward.

Clutch bags are therefore off-limits, given that my hands remain glued to the handles of my crutches in a desperate bid to keep me from falling over. On the rare occasions I have decided to make a bid for crutchless freedom, I have been found a short while later ‘clutching’ a wall, soon to fall in a heap, the bag having been long tossed aside.


Across-body bags are the one viable alternative – small, leather ones work best. But even these, no matter how dainty, kill any attempts to pull off an arresting décolletage. A plunging neckline of a slinky evening number loses its potency when cut in two by a robust leather strap of a bag you were forced to wear because your arms were too busy walking. And so I have learned to simply arrive early and place my bag under the table.

This brings me onto my next point, dressing for dates. You might think that deciding what to wear on a romantic rendezvous would trigger palpitations, cold sweats and sleepless nights. If relationships are initially based on physical attraction, and if first impressions are formed within the first minute of meeting someone, then bags and shoes must be pretty crucial.

READ MORE: Sikh's Aren't Supposed To Cut Their Hair. So Having A Chop Isn't Just Emotional, It's Political Too.

Of course, not only does my clothing bother me, but I worry that if a date gets past the fact I’ve gone to dinner in basketball trainers and we end up on a romantic stroll, I’ll trip him up with my crutches as my desire to get up close and personal leads to the ugly collision of legs and aluminium. This has happened.

I’d be lying if I said that the physical barriers between me and sartorial perfection don’t worry me when prepping for a date. But, in truth these thoughts vanish from my mind almost as soon as they arrive.

I have a wonderful life, and one which my miraculous body makes possible. With just half an hour of physio every morning I am supple enough to get to work pain-free in a job I love. I successfully navigate the Tube, its escalators and its impatient ticket barriers. Then, at the end of the day, get to the cinema and am lost in the latest film. I do choir concerts standing up like everyone else. I have danced until 6am in the morning, canoed down a Spanish river and walked up Pen-y-ghent mountain. All because my incredible, infatigable, indestructible, beautiful body let me do it.

And so when you feel like that about your body, what you wear on a date doesn’t matter. What you wear anywhere doesn’t seem to matter.

Like this? Then you might also be interested in...

Here’s Some Insanely Stylish Girls Who Prove Two Coats Are Better Than One

The Realities Of Being A So Called Plus Size Model

Here’s A Few Secrets As To How To Find The Perfect Red Dress

Picture: Anne Mumford

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us