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Twenty-Seven Cardigans and Still Not Enough: A Torturous Style Journey

Penny Pepper reflects on her relationship with fashion – and how punk took her into disability activism and feminism

Mannequins in Chinatown, New York. Photo: Gabe Palmer/Alamy

Twenty-Seven Cardigans & Still Not EnoughA Torturous Style Journey

Penny Pepper reflects on her relationship with fashion – and how punk took her into disability activism and feminism

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As with many of us, my mother was the first big influence on how I looked and dressed.

A true 60s dolly bird, her dark hair was piled into a pristine beehive and she made her own mini-dresses. The Avon lady called regularly and I remember an obsession with my mum’s pale pink lipsticks, her perfume, and the thing called a ‘pan stick’ (it was fat and beige and rolled out like a glue stick, a form of foundation that you rubbed on your face). Playing with the pan stick created a lot of mess. But mum would never tell me off that much and would instead showed me how to use it.

I was a well-dressed child, reflecting my mum’s tastes. Square-toed patent leather shoes, a box handbag, and pretty miniskirts were all mine. I treasure the photos I have (especially as my dad was a keen photographer who left quite a legacy).

Adolescence brought its usual damnation of self-awareness and self-hatred. Other voices came into the picture. I realised fully I was disabled! It was a grim awakening as to what that label meant and how others saw it. There was very little space in this worldview to be ‘trendy’ and ‘attractive’. What for? We weren’t in the market for marriage and children and it was best we didn’t have hopes for that…

I lost my way and let others dress me. In any kind of institution this usually equates to clothes that are convenient for others to assist you into, rather than what you might choose. A disabled teenager with choices? Not likely. My mum tried but had very little money and, by this time, there were new siblings too.

I still see this in disabled people now, particularly if they are in a traditional care scenario or in the grip of well-meaning parents. As an equalities trainer in a past life, I would always ask younger disabled people about their choices and why they wore what they wore – not to be prescriptive, but to encourage concepts of choice and control. Much of my life as an activist and storyteller explores this idea that, if no one is used to choices, how can they then make them, wisely or otherwise? 

In my teenage years, I hated myself and other disabled people because we were all drab and dirty and dull. I didn’t want to associate with any and went through the usual angst with the added bonus of absorbing all those negative stereotypes coming through the mainstream (at a time when the mainstream was very vanilla).

My brother Ant, two years younger than me, and I shared lots of things. And an important mutual and passionate epiphany began with our immersion into punk. 

Class WarOne of Disabled People’s Many Battles

Penny Pepper

It’s hard to over-estimate the effect and the awakening that punk in its fullest expression gave me. Many deride it as being only about fashion – the influence of Westwood and McLaren; the by-numbers nature of the Sex Pistols. But those of us from that generation know it was a kaleidoscopic rush; an eruption of absolute change. As a woman, I knew I would never be the same. As a disabled person, I learned to find a place I was comfortable in. 

My beginnings as a poet began in the punk era while barriers and discrimination kept me in my bedroom. Meanwhile, Ant travelled to London’s famous Finsbury Park Rainbow venue to see endless punk bands.

Punk radicalised my approach to style. Although now fully cognisant and having choice as to what to wear, I was still prone to the odd fashion faux pas – such as frilly blouses and long hobble skirts. There was also the time I used superglue for my Mohican. Mum was not impressed, especially as I never went anywhere to show it off. Shortly afterwards, when a charity group supplied me with a mobility scooter, I adopted a short red crop and happily raided charity shops with my mum for suitable alternative clothing – mostly black.

My punk beginnings took me into activism – disability and feminism in particular – which developed my views in terms of fashion and appearance. 

I began the journey of evolving my own style, allowing different influences when they suited me and, more importantly, made a statement. At times it felt there was a clash with my feminism because I wanted to escape the asexual categorising I had lived through come puberty. I wanted to wear ripped fishnets and ridiculous shoes. My sexual expression needed to be visual to tackle such ingrained beliefs from the mainstream.

But it was important I took my own route – as did many disabled women – to discover worth beyond following any standardised flaunting of the female form. I realised I was unique, as much as I was ‘normal’, within the vast array of difference that makes the human body.

Over the years, I’ve dabbled with all kinds of looks and, to some extent, became infamous as a peacock – making what some may see as too much effort. I’ve done hippy punk, Numanoid punk, the kaftan years (best forgotten), the brief office suit phase – and many more than I can remember. I’ve also modelled clothes, most recently bespoke underwear last year.

These days, my punk beginnings are echoed in my undercut and blunt 50s-style fringe, a love of tartan, and outrageously impractical shoes. Not forgetting lots and lots of colour. 

And there’s always room for another vintage-style cardigan.

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