With the fashion industry increasing its awareness concerning diversity and gender identities, many feel that disability is on of the last frontiers the fashion industry needs to confront. Thankfully we are beginning to see a change in some respects with new disabled models breaking into the industry as well as designers becoming interested in designing specifically for wheelchair users. However, as with much of the fashion industry, there is much to improve on.
Cat Smith, founder of the blog Stylishly Impaired has been pioneering in exploring “the relationship between disability, clothing, fashion and identity for women with mobility impairments”. In an interview with Emma Hope Allwood for Dazed and Confused she states some of the problems facing the representations of disability in the fashion industry: “discussions [about diversity] sometimes appear to be circular, that every once in a while there will be the inclusion of disabled models in campaigns or the catwalk, which will generate some talk and column inches, only for nothing to really come of it.” Any representation of disabled people in fashion is “nothing but a tokenistic [sic] gesture, and raises questions about the motives… [are people] genuinely interested in creating more diverse representations, or are they jumping on a bandwagon and paying lip service in an attempt to seem inclusive?” This is true for the representation of many groups such as BME and non binary.
I feel in society at large we are less open to discussing disability as we are about race and gender identity. This is perhaps why the fashion industry is less concerned about the representations of disability, for there isn't as wide a popular backing which for them means less money. As a result we are less aware of our ableist (a form of discrimination or social prejudice against people with disabilities) behaviours and privilege than, say, race. Often, according to Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg, we are using ableist language: crippled by debt, insane, paralysed by fear, dumb, blind. All of this language is pejorative and by association a person affected by these disabilities is viewed in a negative and disempowering way. In addition, we often see the person as just their disability, as Cohen-Rottenberg states: “when we become reduced to our disabilities, others quickly forget that there are people involved here”. Lisa Egan, for me as an able person, explains this best: “no one has ever told me that I should describe myself as a 'person with gayness' or a 'person with womanliness'" for “I am disabled by a society that places social, attitudinal and architectural barriers in my way”.
In terms of fashion, as Cat Smith has pointed out there is almost an appropriation, of what she has termed, “disability imagery”. She cites the 1995 Vogue photographs called “High and Mighty” in which able bodied models used crutches and wheelchairs. In her blog Stylishly Impaired she argues that the reason why these photographs were deemed shocking is because it openly displays disability. For in our society, disability is seen as something negative that should be hidden, therefore for it to be out on display goes against these unwritten rules. It also questions the motives behind the photographs. As mentioned before we have seen the token gesture; however this example is much worse, it reinforces the idea of disability as something shocking. Smith stated in the interview that “we talk about the male gaze, but a similar thing can also apply to representations of disabled people through a non-disabled lens”. This here is an example of the ableist gaze constructing and enforcing negative stereotypes. There is also this idea that disabled people are not interested in fashion; “people just expect that you are not going to give a shit about how you look because you’re disabled!… You don’t have to exist in a so-called 'perfect' body to enjoy clothes, to feel good about yourself and the way you look”. So often, fashion fails to recognise those who do not fit into its ideals.
However we are seeing improvements within the fashion industry. Thanks to social media, selfies of disabled people are beginning to change current representations of disability, such as unfashionable. What I love particularly about this is the fact that disabled people are actively empowering themselves and disproving those myths concerning disempowerment. We can also see this is with new models. Recently social media has been abuzz about Madeline Stuart, an 18 year old model with downs syndrome, who has now been booked for New York Fashion Week. We also have Jillian Mercado who having signed up with IMG has now stared in the Diesel campaign. The head of IMG, Ivan Bart said: “she’s fierce, nothing gets her down. It is a great opportunity for us”. In addition we have Alexander McQueen. In his “Fashion-Able” 1998 issue of Dazed and Confused, McQueen, photographer Nick Knight and stylist Katy England did a story featuring models with a wide range of disabilities. The models wore designs by Rei Kawakubo, Hussein Chalayan and Philip Treacy. We also have McQueen’s Number 13 show which featured model Aimee Mullins wearing prosthetic legs of carved elm wood. But as pointed out by AnOther: “Mullins’ walk was not an act of sensationalism – indeed, within the construct of the show, the handcrafted legs almost passed unnoticed amid the visual feast”. This is in say contrast to Vogue’s “High and Mighty”.
Amongst the realms of high street fashion we are also beginning to see a slow shift of representations. For example we have the Debenhams department store diversity campaign which featured a variety of ages, races as well as disabilities. The store received positive reactions to the campaign which suggests it is not the public who are adverse to diversity but the industry itself. For as Ed Watson director of PR at Debenhams said: “Our customers are not the same shape or size so our latest look book celebrates this diversity. We would be delighted if others followed our lead. Hopefully these shots will be a step, albeit a small one, towards more people feeling more comfortable about their bodies.” We are also seeing changes in design, for example Izzy Camilleri has now began designing for wheelchair users and has now opened up a range of fashion possibilities for wheelchair users. In her videos I heard one person say: I now have a “wardrobe that look normal in a seated position” and another say “I’ve just have never been able to even consider buying a trench coat”. The secret of her success is her very clever designs. For example her trousers:
-Are cut to not ride down at the back, bunch up or dig in at the front
-Have a waist band has hidden elastic at back for ease and all day comfort
-Stay in place and fit better than off the rack
-Don’t have back pockets and flattened seams
All of which makes them more comfortable for the wheelchair users as well look great in a seated position. It seems as if she has taken the time hear the complaints of wheelchair users concerning their clothes and have fixed them. It seems Camilleri is pioneering these designs. For as Smith says: “many would jump at the chance to design around the artistic 'problem' of designing for different bodies… disability representation, should, therefore, be seen as much as an artistic possibility a it is in terms of diversity or inclusion”
In conclusion I believe we have to be more open about disability and we are slowly and surely beginning to see this change thanks to the work of great people such as Madeline Stuart and Jilian Mercado (as well as social media) are bringing disability to the forefront and changing people’s perceptions of disability. As a result designers such as McQueen and Camilleri have and are taking notice and diversifying their practices to be more inclusive. Like many issues in the fashion industry, it will hopefully get better but it will take time.
Written by George Toon, contributor for Erebus.