Fashion + Diversity

Is The Fashion Industry Ignoring Disability?

We all have different expectations from our clothes – we want pieces that fit well. We use clothing to express our personalities and fit in with our friendship groups, so we need it to be fashionable and trend setting. When we find the right outfit, it enhances our appearance by making us feel good and boosting our confidence.

Buying clothes that make us look and feel good is something we all have a right to do, disabled or not. We’ve seen brands responding to calls for greater diversity regarding gender, race, and body shape. But it seems there’s still a long way to go when it comes to representing those with physical or mental disabilities. Is 2020 the year for a big change?

Fashion and disability

Fashionable clothing for disabled people is an area for growth with a market the size of China, researchers have found. There are 13.9 million people with disabilities in the UK alone, yet we rarely see disabled people present in the media. A recent survey by Media Agency UM highlighted the scope of the problem, with 66% of disabled people surveyed stating that they felt ignored, and 54% saying they want to see more people with physical disabilities in adverts and campaigns to make them more relatable.

The combination of ageing populations across the western world and increased life expectancy for people born with a disability means that now is a great time for fashion brands to take advantage of technologies such as 3D printing to offer customised products to disabled people, and finding their niche in the market.

But how many fashion brands actually take disabled people and their needs into consideration when designing and promoting their items?

75% of disabled people feel their needs are not being met by fashion brands in the UK for various reasons – the poorly designed stores, lack of staff training and the brands not offering products and clothes that are disabled-friendly. And on top of this, the clothes are so far from mainstream fashion trends they are seen as ‘untrendy’.

This is a downfall for the retailers also, as one in five people in the UK have a disability or impairment – meaning missing out on a potentially substantial profit.

Disability rights advocate Joshua Reeves discussed whether he believes high street brands are thinking enough about diversity. It shouldn’t be pushed to the curb on how you look, how you act or whether you have a disability. If we want to wear a kind of clothing brand, then it should be adaptable to the person. It’s important that high street brands are innovating and including options for disabled people, otherwise it means potentially seeking out adaptable clothing brands.

Brands being inclusive with trendy, practical clothing…

Clothing ranges designed for disabled people are not new. The UK company Adaptawear has produced clothing with adaptive fastenings for almost 10 years for people suffering with arthritis, Parkinson’s disease, Dementia, and those who struggle to fasten buttons and zips. In addition, other companies offer bespoke products, such as bras and swimsuits for women who have had mastectomies. Yet few mainstream designer brands make clothes for disabled people, despite the fact that they make up a significant proportion of the population.

Although a lot is yet to be done, there has been some progress. Brands including M&S and Tommy Hilfiger have launched adaptive clothing lines designed for adults and children with physical and mental disabilities, involving the disabled community at the beginning from the design stage right the way through to promoting the ranges. Tommy Hilfiger’s range includes clothes with one-handed zips, extended openings, adjustable waists and magnetic closures – all of which maintain the style of the brand. As for M&S, they launched an ‘easy dressing’ range for children with disabilities making it a high street first, with garments with extra space for casts and pockets for feeding tubes. This shows that retailers at both ends of the fashion spectrum are beginning to realise there is a wide audience waiting to be catered for.

ASOS is another brand continuously improving and expanding their accessible clothing range, in terms of designing clothes differently and helping people with specific needs find what they’re looking for more easily. ASOS has been praised for designing clothes with wheelchair users in mind, working closely with GB Paralympic hopeful Chloe Ball-Hopkins to create a wheelchair friendly jumpsuit.

Fashion brands and disabled models

Other than the clothing itself, we also need to see more brands including disabled models in their campaigns and communications if we are to challenge stigmas and move towards better representation. It’s 2020 and we need to see more change, such as high street brands displaying more people with disabilities on adverts. 

It doesn’t matter about your followers, but it does matter about your appearance” Georgia Rankin

Georgia Rankin, ‘Britain’s smallest woman’ and social media sensation, told Holly Willougby and Phillip Schofield on This Morning that while the fashion industry happily sent her products to review, they never invite her to glamorous events. She hopes that future generations will see more diversity in fashion. A brand trying to make this positive change is LoungeUnderwear involving Georgia Rankin in their #MyBoobsMyBody campaign to support self love and international women’s day, showing they are taking the lead in ensuring diversity across their brand.

Another Nottingham Trent University student, passionate about making a change in today’s society, is Evie Ashwin, wowing crowds at her graduation show with her innovative collection of clothes designed for people with disabilities. Evie showcased her adaptive collection as part of Graduate Fashion Week with each outfit worn by a model who has a physical disability. Evie’s collection aims to address the problems that the fashion industry can cause for disabled people, recognising that fashion should be fully accessible for everyone, reflecting inclusitivity and a strong sense of belonging and community.

However, despite those few brands making a move towards tackling diversity, the majority of high street clothing is made to enhance the able-bodied figure, with little or no regard for the physically disabled sector of society.

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