GET TO KNOW : RUTH PATTERSON
words by Ruth
Why I wear white at festivals
For most 25-year-olds, festivals mean mud, wellies and unidentifiable dirt and dust. ‘Festival chic’ spreads in magazines tell you to wear denim and loud patterns on which the inevitable filth won’t be so obvious. I go to over 20 music festivals a year – but I prefer to do them in a pristine white trouser suit.
Let me explain.
At the age of 15, I was diagnosed with arthritis. At 21, Ehlers Danlos Syndrome was added to the diagnosis. That was 4 years ago, and I’ve been in a wheelchair ever since.
But, for the last 6 years I have been the front woman of folk-rock band, Holy Moly & The Crackers. I love my job: I’m always happiest writing, performing or travelling with some of my best friends in our van.
But, as you might imagine, I haven’t chosen the world’s most wheelchair-accessible occupation!
The majority of the venues and festivals we perform at are inaccessible. This immediately creates a divide and an exclusivity. It makes me feel as though I haven’t been invited to the party. And in a place where I am meant to be leading the entertainment, I find myself feeling left out.
I decided that if I’m going to be shut out, I might as well do it in style. That’s why I wear white at festivals. Being in a wheelchair means I’m not trudging around in mud like everyone else – my friends joke that I get ferried around like a queen. So why not dress like a queen too? I’m not going to get muddy, I might as well make the most of it.
Wherever I go, people stare. They aren’t used to seeing a young, otherwise healthy-looking girl in a wheelchair. But the fact that I can’t walk is the least interesting thing about me, I hope. I wear white to really give them something to stare at.
My festival wheelchair is spray-painted gold, I have a mop of huge, curly dark hair and I am wearing a spotless, flared white trouser suit. Imagine seeing that after three days of mud, rain and hangovers. Now people are interested, but I’m controlling the reason why.
We all go to gigs and festivals to lose ourselves, to escape the daily grind and I wholeheartedly welcome the freedom-seeking, sequin-clad audience members.
As a disabled front-woman, I feel that I add to that experience bringing a sense of inclusivity – anyone can be who they want to be.
When I get up on that stage, sat on my stool surrounded by my band, I feel completely free and I almost forget I’m any different. There are too few disabled front women (and front women generally!) and I feel deeply privileged be lucky enough to sustain a career in music.
But not all festivals and venues are created equal. While I’ve had countless depressing, difficult experiences that involved many piggybacks from my incredible and patient bandmates, I have had some incredible experiences with accessibility that give me hope for the future.
Freedom Festival, the Mayor of London’s deaf and disabled arts festival, last Summer was incredible. It’s where I met Samantha Renke and Kelly Knox – two incredibly powerful and inspirational women.
That festival really went the extra mile to incorporate the needs of everyone and there was such a strong sense of inclusivity and supportiveness. It was the first time we had a signer translating our songs into sign language. It was amazing!
It was also the first time I met the team from ‘Attitude Is Everything’ – a great organisation supported by a diverse range of artists and venue. They are really leading the way forward into raising awareness and providing education on accessibility in the entertainment industry.
There’s a lot of work to be done before disabled people are made to feel welcome in the industry. Some of that is about ramps and elevators, and some of that is about attitudes.
But I do count myself as very lucky to be able to have these experiences and I find touring very empowering. I love watching people astounded to see me helped out of my wheelchair and onto the stage.
We played the Avalon stage at Glastonbury a couple of years ago, after racing back from a festival in France. The face of the stage manager, as I was eventually carried out the van into my mud drenched wheelchair in the spotless white suit, was priceless. A few hours later, two of my bandmates were wrestling me back into it with two minutes to stage-time for our second show of the day. They were all caked in mud, as was the stage and my chair and every visible surface.
But my white suit returned home pristine. If you can’t see a silver lining, try wearing one – it works for me.
Holy Moly & the Crackers new single out on the April 6.
follow Ruth on Instagram @r_patt_