Fashion Sense Without the Sense of Sight

By Cheryl Wade, BCF Consultant

I am totally blind and I love, love clothes! I get them everywhere. I have two closets full of clothes for every possible season and occasion. I buy them at Macy’s or Sears, a thrift shop or garage sale.

I love cap sleeves, beaded shirts, embroidery, crinkly Capri pants, sheath dresses with little flowered jackets. Someone once asked me why I like clothes so much when I cannot see their colors or designs. I love clothes so much because there are hundreds of fabrics, decorative touches that can be touched; styles, lengths, tucks and gathers and accessories. Then there’s the best part of all, wearing something that has that perfect fit and was meant for you.

In this business of clothes, parents walk the same fine line with children who are blind as they do with children who are not. There’s one big exception, though. People who are blind or have low vision will always need help matching colors and understanding prints and visual designs. So there’s that line between advice and dictatorship.

Then there’s a stereotype some people have about folks who are blind. If you’re blind and you’re beautifully put together, people say, “How do you do that?” If you like flamboyant, artsy or oddball clothes, you might hear, “who dresses HER?” Those remarks are enough to scare a 15-year-old who is blind and wants to make a good impression. But those stereotypical remarks don’t need to be taken with much credibility.

As a teen, I found it difficult to go shopping with my girl friends and make clothes decisions that were “cool.” I trusted my mother to describe clothing and even say, “no, that’s a terrible color.” But could I actually decide what was right for me? Gradually, I developed the “yes” to that question, and I found I had a certain look, a style, that I often could locate on the racks with minimal advice from friends.

I have a few suggestions for parents. First, look in popular magazines and take your teen to the store with the idea of showing her what’s “in.” Describe the colors, the casual or dressy flavor. Feel free to tell your child if you don’t like a particular style or outfit, but be prepared with a good reason.

Allow your child to run her hands through the racks of clothes. Suggest an attractive color or stylish look, but let the child have the major role in the decision-making.

Men’s and boys’ clothes have much less tactile variety than women’s and girls’. For a guy, it’s important to match colors and, if possible, help him find shirts with different kinds of colors or materials – if that’s what he wants. Describe pictures or printed designs on shirts. There might be three University of Michigan long-sleeve T-shirts, but each might have a different kind of logo or image.

It’s very important for your child to have some concept of color at a young age. He or she probably will develop some way of understanding color if he or she cannot see it. Don’t be surprised if your child says something like, “purple reminds me of cloves candy.” That’s because, if there’s no connection with vision and no visual memory, the senses your child will use are touch, smell, taste and sound. The young person probably will come to the point of realizing that, for example, sky-blue is a pleasant, non-confrontational color. Navy blue goes with almost everything. So does black, but many people don’t like black with brown. Grey and black go together. Dark blue and purple usually are fine. So, there are families of colors that are related.

But what’s the difference between bright green and gaudy green? That’s subject to interpretation. And what does camouflage look like, anyway?

Feel free to advise your child about colors that work well or that don’t. I can remember times when I found what I thought was the perfect dress that made me feel like a smart young businesswoman with that crisp, slightly preppy look. Then my mother would say, “Oh, that’s an old-lady print.” I trusted her and looked somewhere else in the rack.

On the other hand, keep in mind that your teen’s taste in clothes might be very different from your own. If you wear grey business suits and cuff links but all your son wants are baggy jeans and muscle shirts, you might need to go with the flow as long as he’s not going to a National Honors Society luncheon or a job interview. Perhaps parent and teen also could work together to decide when to buy something that’s a little offbeat, funky or out of character. There’s nothing wrong with that; so, Mom, don’t freak out if your daughter wants a day-glow orange jacket with strings of beads hanging down the front – just for a little change.

As a young woman, I enjoyed my mother’s technique for picking out Christmas gifts for me to wear. Once, I asked for a couple pair of sweat pants. My mother bought two kinds that I easily could tell apart. One pair was a little dressier; it didn’t have the gathered legs, and the shirt had a zipper in the front. The other pair was the lounging kind, with legs that were gathered at the ankles and a normal T-shirt for the top.

Sometimes, clothes look so much alike that it’s impossible or at least difficult to tell one from the other. There are a number of labeling techniques available. Put card-stock labels in pants or blazer pockets, remembering to remove them when they go into the wash or to the drycleaner. These small cards might include reminders such as “wear with green shirt.” Some people sew French knots inside their clothes for color identification. Hang clothes together in outfits. Use safety pins in various combinations to mark clothes based on their color or whether they go together.

I sometimes like to buy clothes in sets. I find a skirt I like, then work with a friend or a store staff member to find the top that precisely matches. I usually say, “is the match really good or just OK?” I might ask, “how alike are these two colors?” Maybe I’ll want to know if a shirt is too busy for the skirt. At any rate, when the shopping’s done, these two items are forever a set and nothing can separate them.

Understand that developing a sense of clothes can be nerve-racking for a young person who is blind or for Mom and Dad. It’s scary to make decisions when you have a limitation that might color – forgive the pun – that decision. So enjoy the experience, don’t worry about perfection and don’t sweat the small stuff.


Helpful Resources

Labeling Ideas for Clothes and Shoes: Living Blind, www.livingblind.com/clothes-blind.html

Organizing and Labeling Clothing When you are Blind or Have Low Vision: American Foundation for the Blind: www.afb.org

Labeling and Marking: Vision Aware, www.visionaware.org

Labeling Clothing: Article by Dana Ard, National Federation of the Blind, https://nfb.org/images/…/frfa0105.htm

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