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“The realities of shopping for a wedding dress in a wheelchair”

“People assumed that because I’m a wheelchair-user, I was always a bridesmaid, never a bride…” says Lorna Duff-Howie.

“Do you have any purple dresses?” That was the first question I asked at my first wedding dress appointment.

“We’ll see,” said the wedding dress consultant, handing me a glass of something fizzy.

“And I’ll need something to accommodate my, um…”

“Wheelchair?” she offered.

“I was going to say my boobs, but my wheelchair works, too.” I gulped down my drink, and we went to look at dresses.

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In the months before my wedding, people had assumed that since I’m a wheelchair-user, I was, well, always a bridesmaid, never a bride. This ranged from the taxi driver who took me to my hair and make-up trial, to the co-ordinator at a venue we didn’t book, and even the restaurant manager at our rehearsal dinner.

Before I got engaged, the closest I had come to wedding dresses was binge watching Say Yes to the Dress, and pretending the characters on Bridesmaids were my best friends.

I rarely looked at bridal magazines because I never found myself represented on their pages. I did, however, find other disabled brides in the posts on blogs such as Rock n Roll Bride and Offbeat Bride.

wedding dress shop
Wedding dress shopping: “Growing up, I didn’t see brides in wheelchairs anywhere. I could never picture how my wedding dress would look”

Long after I packed away my wedding dress, a bridal shop made the news for including a wheelchair in its window display. My issue with that was the wheelchair they used wasn’t actually useable. And while more mainstream representation of disabled people is much needed, I long for the day when it doesn’t make the news.

Growing up, I didn’t see brides in wheelchairs anywhere. The mannequins in bridal shop windows were always standing up. I could never picture how my wedding dress would look. I would never have picked any of the dresses in the windows.

Years later, when I met the man I actually wanted to marry, I figured that we needed to have a wedding, which meant I needed a wedding dress. A dress that would look nice and put together on me, sitting in my wheelchair.

I have Cerebral Palsy and I’ve used a wheelchair since I was three years old. I’ve spent my personal and professional life trying to make the world a more accessible and inclusive place.

My physical impairment doesn’t bother me as much as inaccessible buildings and the preconceived notions of able-bodied people. Like, for example, everyone who thought I was going to be a bridesmaid instead of a bride.

The one place I really, truly felt like a proper bride was in the bridal shop during my fittings. People say that every bride wants to feel special, but I didn’t. I wanted to feel the same as any other bride. Because disabled brides are the same as any other bride.

My wheelchair didn’t matter as much as calming my regular bridal nerves, or making sure everything was in the right place.

Lorna on her wedding day
Lorna on her wedding day:  “Disabled brides are the same as any other bride”

And yes, I did feel special. Just like any other bride. I wasn’t ‘the bride in the wheelchair’.

I was Lorna, the bride who wanted a non-traditional purple dress, but ended up going with something traditional and not purple. Purple is more than my favourite colour, it’s a way of life, so when the traditional dress found me, I opted for purple Doc Martens on my feet. I can’t wear heels, and I prefer boots, anyway.

The people at Emma Roy in Edinburgh, where I chose my dress, treated me brilliantly. I bought my dress there because I loved the whole experience. And because they had a ramp at the front door. And their dressing room was on the ground floor.

Before booking the appointment we had phoned around some other shops that were mysteriously booked up as soon as they heard I was on wheels. Some said their dressing rooms were inaccessible.

It was also suggested to me that I buy my dress online. Like everyone else, I do a lot of online shopping. But I knew I wouldn’t find my dress online, because it wasn’t an impulse purchase kind of outfit.

wedding day
Wedding day: “Since I’d be sitting all day, I didn’t want to drown in yards of fabric. I couldn’t get lost in my dress”

As I drove into Emma Roy, I had a feeling I’d find my dress there. The dress consultant asked me how I wanted to feel on my wedding day.

“I want to feel married,” I told her.

I wanted to feel confident, I wanted to feel like myself.

I also politely asked that she avoid putting me in any dresses that made me look like a cupcake. I then tried on, or at least, draped over my body, five dresses. Some looked wonderful, but not so great on me, which is totally normal.

But while I was having the regular bride experience where not every dress was the one, as a wheelchair-user I always have to consider things that non-disabled people do not. My wedding dress shopping was no exception.

For instance, I didn’t want ‘too much dress’. Since I’d be sitting all day, I didn’t want to drown in yards of fabric. I couldn’t get lost in my dress. Saying that, I didn’t want to wear one of the more fitted styles that would cut me in half at the waist.

From a practical perspective, I had to self-propel my chair all day without ripping the seams or getting fabric caught in my wheels.

I also have kind of wide shoulders and, while I didn’t spend a lot of time dreaming of my dress, when I did that dress was purple with sleeves.

wedding shoes
Wedding shoes: “The seamstress removed some layers of the skirt and hemmed it so that it wouldn’t snag in the wheels and my purple Doc Martens peeked out”

There was also the question of whether I would decorate my chair for the wedding, and cover it as much as possible. No. My wheelchair is a part of who I am, and it’s necessary for my independence. I didn’t need to cover it in flowers or scarves or add bells to prove a point. I did, however, buy a nice new set of wheels.

All this was going through my head as I rotated between the five dresses in my final shortlist. I tried on the first dress again. The big traditional dress. The dress I felt like a bride in.

The seamstress removed some layers of the skirt and hemmed it so that it wouldn’t snag in the wheels and my purple Doc Martens peeked out. It was sleeveless, but I added a half sleeve jacket, which I didn’t even know was a thing.

It’s been six years since I got married, and my advice for any wheelchair using brides is simple: wear whatever you want with confidence. And it’s OK to pick the first dress you try on. Just like it is for any other bride.

For far too long, the representation of women by both mainstream and social media has failed to reflect who we see in the mirror, and its impact on our mental health is worrying. Stylist’s Love Women initiative promises to change that. We’ve partnered with Dove, whose latest project (in conjunction with photo library Getty Images) aims to increase the supply of diverse pictures of women – which we will be using going forward.

Our editor-in-chief Lisa Smosarski has also made five pledges to Stylist readers:

We will ensure the women you see on our pages represent all women – inclusive of ethnicity, body shape, sexuality, age and disability. When we create content and ideas, we will ensure that all women are represented at the table. We commit to featuring one fashion or beauty photoshoot a month that uses real, diverse women.

We will ensure that we never sell an impossible dream. We believe in aspiration, but not in selling a lie. We will work with influencers, celebrities and other partners to encourage them to reveal their truths, too.

We will celebrate the so-called flaws of women to prove the normality in all of our bodies. We will run videos, photoshoots and honest accounts of our bodies and how they behave.

We will hold regular huddles with our advertisers and brand partners to challenge the way they portray and reflect women in their branding and advertising. We will call out and challenge brands, media and people who refuse to represent women with respect and truth. We will call on the government to support our goals.

Through insight and anecdote, we will teach everyone about the issues facing women, what needs to be done and how we can all work together to resolve this self-esteem crisis.

Find out more about Stylist’s Love Women initiative here.

Images: Unsplash, courtesy of author

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