Thursday, January 17, 2008
By Roberta Vowell
Stephanie Thomas dreams of fluffy sweaters, figure-hugging skirts and dainty dresses.
Then she wakes up, puts on her pajamas and goes to work.
Last Feb. 1, Thomas christened herself the PJ Deejay - she hosts a weekend show on WVKL-FM (95.7) - and vowed to wear pajamas every day for a year to raise awareness of the difficulty people with disabilities have finding comfortable, easy- to-wear clothing.
She bought a pile of Target sleepwear, had it embroidered with a PJ Deejay logo and packed away the wardrobe she remembers as "urban chic."
Today is Day 348.
"I went to church in them," said Thomas, 38, sorting through hangers of jammies - cherry-red satin, blue cotton with white piping, a silky black ensemble with mandarin collar. "I did public appearances in them. I traveled in them. I went on dates with my boyfriend in them."
"I owe him big."
Just a few months into the pajama party, she realized that the stress of going out in public dressed like, well, like nobody else at the grocery store, was leading her to isolate herself in her Ghent condo.
"There are some very psychological effects," she said, "of having a limited wardrobe."
And she gained 10 pounds.
"Pajamas do not pull in anything, or suck in anything," Thomas said with a rueful smile. "I can't wait to get into the most expensive pair of jeans, with the most support possible."
On Feb. 1, she will pull out her real clothes. Slide on a chic skirt, maybe a slinky dress.
The day after that, Thomas will emcee what she calls a "Fashion Show... and Tell" at Norfolk's MacArthur Center mall. The shows - three in one day - will display clothing options and style tips for people with disabilities and limited movement.
Putting the spotlight on that issue will make all those PJ days worthwhile.
"The PJ Deejay stunt is a way to generate a dialogue," Thomas said. "Parents say, 'Keep talking about clothing for people in wheelchairs. I'm tired of sending my child to school in sweats. She wants to wear cute clothes.' "
Thomas herself was born without a right thumb and without toes. To allow her to walk, doctors took bone from her arms and created toes, three on one foot, four on the other.
"I still live with stares," she said, holding up her hands, "as someone who is different."
It wasn't until high school in her native Chicago that she realized just how different.
"I used to always put my watch on my right arm, and leave my left cuff unbuttoned because I just couldn't do it."
She looked down at her wrists, then looked up with a grin.
"It kind of became my fashion thing, having just one cuff unbuttoned."
Thomas was a dancer, a high school cheerleader and then the youngest captain ever of the Chicago Bulls cheerleaders. "To be told you're not going to walk," she said, "and to become a dancer, that was a great feeling to be out there."
Seeking scholarship money, she entered pageants - her undergrad degree is in business marketing from Sullivan University in Louisville, Ky., and she came to Regent University in '97 to earn her master's - and started researching clothing for people with disabilities. "I needed a platform. What I found was more than that."
For years, Thomas considered a big stunt to spotlight her cause. An impending move last winter, which forced her to pack up her clothes, helped give her momentum.
"They have ramps leading to malls," she said, reeling off a speech she's given many times in the last year, "but once you get in the mall, there's nothing for you. There are designer clothes for pets, but not for people with disabilities."
So, why pajamas?
"Honestly," Thomas said. "PJ rhymed with deejay."
She giggled and shook her head.
"I wish I'd thought this through."
She is thoroughly sick of pajamas.
"I had a girlfriend say, 'Oh, that sounds great, wearing pajamas every day.' I said, 'Have you ever seen me in anything like sportswear before?' Casual, for me, is a pencil skirt, a little T and a blazer and pumps.
"Clothes are fun to me. They're like a hobby. I knew this would be a real challenge."
She looked down at her outfit, which would take her to a newspaper interview and the gym: charcoal-colored, long-sleeve cotton V-neck, and loose velour pants tucked into knee-length black boots with sharp heels. She sighed.
She spent about $1,500 on her pajama wardrobe, 60 pieces, all tops and bottoms plus one modest blue cotton nightie that has stepped in as a sort of dress.
"Sixty things seems like a lot, until you realize it's every day."
Being in public in pajamas made her feel like an outsider.
"I was in the airport in Louisville, in these awful green pajamas. Everyone around me, it was a weekday morning, and they were all in business suits. I wanted to explain to each person, 'Hey, I'm wearing pj's for a reason.' I felt so low that day."
She wore pajamas to dressy parties, to her mambo and jazz dancing classes and to Studio Center, where she's much in demand as a voice-over talent for commercials.
"I learned that I can do anything I put my mind to, that I can keep my word and keep my integrity. I could have cheated when I went on an airplane. I could have cheated when I went out of town, but I didn't, and that meant something to me."
The only place she didn't wear her PJ Deejay pajamas: to sleep.
"No, no, no," she said. "That's, that's ridiculous. To sleep in, I grab another pair of pajamas. Not monogrammed. That would be gross, to wear the same thing, popping out of bed."
As PJ Deejay, Thomas went to find out what people with disabilities need. Women in wheelchairs, for instance, told her they search for pants with more material in the back and jackets that are shorter. "A regular jacket," Thomas said, "they can spend the whole day trying to yank it down, while it's creeping up around their chin."
Thomas rattles off figures and soundbites.
"According to the U.S. Census, there are 22 million people in our country with nonsevere disabilities. It's the largest minority group in the country, and a minority group anyone can join at any time.
"Anyone could step off the curb or have an accident during a vacation or have a stroke, and your life would change in an instant."
In her PJ Deejay year, Thomas has talked to fashion retailers and designers. She has a cadre of students from Deep Creek High School working on her fashion shows.
Her message is that clothing that is already in stores can be adapted, but merchandisers need to be educated so they can help customers with disabilities find clothes that are right for them. For instance, the shorter jackets that wheelchair users need are right there on the racks - boleros and swing jackets are perfect.
"I talk to retailers," Thomas said, "and it's as simple as telling them not to look over the head of someone in a wheelchair.
Or not to talk just to the person pushing the wheelchair.
"Just as someone saw pet owners as a viable consumer group, I believe I've gotten retailers to see people with disabilities as a viable consumer group."
Karen Jewette, marketing coordinator for Deep Creek High, has had two groups of students in her distributive education club work with Thomas.
"Stephanie is very creative," Jewette said, "very driven and very passionate about her ideas."
Jewette's students will hold a PWD Day - shorthand for "people with disabilities" - at the school Feb. 1 to raise awareness among peers, and will volunteer at the fashion shows the next day.
"Meeting her helped them understand the issues and put them into the place of a person with disabilities," Jewette said. "It helped a lot of them take another look at people with disabilities and put themselves into their place."
Thomas' fervor has led her to a new activism. She is one of 30 people chosen to train as an advocate through the Virginia Board for People With Disabilities. Once a month, for seven months, she attends workshops in Richmond.
"We're talking about how to be change agents in the community," she said. "I want to commit my time to this and really make a noise."
Her first step is the fashion show.
"I want to showcase our community, an inclusive community of people with disabilities."
When she gets onstage, there will be no pajamas.
"I tell you what - for the fashion shows, I'm going to do every show in a different outfit. All skirts and dresses. I can't wait."