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Time to tilt the lens – why is the fashion industry ignoring disability?

Part 1 of a two-part series

With crammed shops, an almost complete absence of disabled people on catwalks and a lack of inclusive products, the fashion industry is both a business which pervades the life of every single person and at the same time sports a complete lack of representation of and accessibility for people with disabilities. But what is the fashion industry actually lacking in the way it caters or doesn’t cater to a group which makes up twenty-two percent of the population in this country? Before getting into the topic I would like to point out that all the following statements, problems and solutions are based on conversations I had with different disabled women. They represent their lives and their personal experiences and opinions, nothing less but also nothing more. 

The first problem is the kind of products that are available. While Jo’s small size means she often shops in the kids section, she is always looking for certain items that are difficult to find. Or in her own words: “being restricted to children’s wear is great from a money perspective because I don’t have to pay VAT but from an underwear perspective not so great because I don’t fit the bras I need! And when I did finally find knickers that didn’t have cartoon characters printed on them, I bought them in bulk.” And it is not just the actual product, for many it’s even getting into the shop in the first place. The layout of the common high-street shop hardly makes clothes shopping a pleasant experience when navigating the space in a wheelchair. This can make shopping an annoying and unnerving experience for wheelchair users like Anne* (name changed by editorial staff). To maximise retail space the clothes racks stand so close to each other that it is often challenging for wheelchair users to move through them. Clothes are also hung up high. That makes it easy to browse when you are standing but unreachable when you’re sitting in a wheelchair. But the challenge doesn’t stop there. Wheelchairs do not move sideways but the curtains of a common changing room do. If you do manage to get in, you are facing forwards with not enough space to turn, but that curtain is still behind your back. And where is the joy in buying a beautiful new dress when not a single part of the store has been created with your needs in mind? 

Historically the relationship between fashion and disability representation has been difficult. It is not just that the group is shockingly underrepresented, the industry has also been accused of ableism and the fetishization of disability, especially disabled women, in the past. When Alexander McQueen created a pair of carved wooden prosthetic legs for the world-class Paralympic athlete Aimee Mullins in his 1999 collection ‘No.13’, he was accused of using her for shock value and treating her as part of a ‘freak-show’. The prosthetics have high sculpted heels with pointed toes and the calf is covered in flowers and vines trailing up the leg inspired by a Louis XIV-style table. While these connections between women’s legs and furniture does bring up associations of Carlo Mollino whose chairs balance on their very thin legs like the women in fetish heels in his private picture collection, McQueen’s catwalk was also a chance for Mullins to prove her talent which she clearly did when gracefully walking over the runway after only a few hours of practice with those legs. But photoshoots like the one accompanying Kylie Jenner’s 2015 Interview article have been rightfully criticised for their ableism. While Mullins is a woman who lives and thrives with her disability every day, Jenner as an able-bodied girl posed in a gold wheelchair wearing a shiny black bodysuit with black fetish heels. As a twitter user put it “when actual models can’t find work when in their chair but able bodied people can sit their ass in one and get paid, there’s a problem.” (Amelia, @amysgotmilk, December 1, 2015) Wheelchair models are still a rarity at fashion shows and when the model and disability advocate Samanta Bullock works at a show she is usually the only one there: “And when I was going down the runway, everyone was clapping and cheering on me and that was great, I mean who doesn’t love being cheered on but it shouldn’t have to be like that. I should be able to get onto the runway in my wheelchair and people should just think ‘oh, another model’.” 

Opening itself up to people of different abilities is not just a long overdue shift in the direction of social justice but also has the potential to make the fashion industry a better industry overall. In not catering towards people with disabilities it misses out on 13.9 million potential customers in the UK alone. But this is not just a matter of profits, the measuring stick of good design – ‘form follows function’ – also raises serious questions about the clothes that the industry currently offers. If mainstream fashion is unable to cater to disabled customers, are these pieces actually good products? 

Another big factor is the corporality of clothing. This is not to deny that fashion is an artform with its good right to create impractical, crazy creations but in its everyday use it is intimately connected to the body it covers. When fashion writer and activist Sinead Burke’s light turquoise Christopher Kane dress was supposed to be shown in the ‘Body Beautiful’ exhibition of the National Museum of Scotland, curators realised that there was no mannequin in the shape of a woman with achondroplasia. They had to create one based on Sinead’s own body using a mix of plaster casts and 3D-scanning. Samanta explained how fittings were at the heart of the process of creating the pieces of her upcoming inclusive clothing line. Every single item was tried on both her as a wheelchair user and on an able-bodied model. This allowed them to find the perfect balance between getting rid of excess fabric that bunches up unflatteringly when sitting but still having enough to cover the body comfortably when standing. In an industry where fast production and constant new designs are in demand, brands rarely take the time to try their clothes on fitting models during the design process. The result is ill-fitting clothes which were made without the human body in mind. The task of designing for body shapes that have not been given their due attention by fashion designers brings the human body back into focus. This will create clothes, which actually fit, for all of us. 

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