Fashion + Disability

Adaptive Clothing: How to Dress an Unruly Body

In 2019, the Irish fashion writer Sinead Burke stood in plaster that, over ten long, long hours, slowly created a mold of her body. She had loaned two pieces of clothing – an exquisite Christopher Kane dress in light blue, and a Burberry trench like none you’ve seen before – to an exhibition being developed by the National Museum of Scotland, but the museum had run into a problem. They didn’t have a mannequin to match her body frame. Sinead is 3ft 5in. She has Achondroplasia. 

Achondroplasia is a genetic disease whose primary feature is dwarfism. For the museum, it wasn’t as simple as sourcing an appropriate mannequin from elsewhere, because the elsewhere doesn’t exist. No one manufactures mannequins that cater to little people. Instead, in a lengthy process outlined on their blog by Lynn Maclean, the museum’s Principal Conservator in paper and textiles, they had to develop something completely new with their supplier. It was a long process, one that involved Burke spending hours completely still in plaster in order to create an accurate model, entirely bespoke to her body. It would take five months to complete. The exhibition, titled Body Beautiful: Diversity on the Catwalk, ran from May to October that year, and claimed to be the first exhibition of its kind. 

An uphill battle

If this is what it takes to get just two mannequins that don’t uniformly cater to the able-bodied figure, then it could be considered an impossible task to overhaul the fashion industry at whole, and in particular fast fashion where stock turnover is swift and the able-bodied are those easiest to dress. Designing and producing adaptive clothing is not a quick process, and often requires medical input. Time is money, and brands are reluctant to fall behind. And it’s not just about the clothes, it’s about the entire retail experience. I was in Topman recently looking for a pair of jeans and, putting the struggle to find some that weren’t of the super skinny variety aside, I eventually found a pair…hanging from a rail approximately 10 feet in the air. Getting them down involved stealing a staff member’s stool and reaching precariously for the hanger, still only just within my reach. 

If this type of store layout works against even those who are able-bodied, how hard does it work against those who are not? Consider a scenario: it’s mid-season sale time, lunch hour, and everyone’s having a nosy before getting back to the office. In order to accommodate the extra stock they want rid of, they’ve increased the number of clothing rails on the shop floor. It’s like Asda on Christmas Eve. You’re in the dresses section, but where you’d really like to be is by the skirts, particularly that lovely yellow one, with the flowers. If only there was a bit more space behind the person in front of you, you could just slip past. But no, you’re stuck here and now someone’s coming up behind you, impatient, reaching over your shoulder to pull out a dress. It’s really quite warm in here as well, isn’t it? You’re getting a bit frazzled, aren’t you? You’re able-bodied. Now consider it again from the perspective of someone using a wheelchair. You’re not even going to attempt it, are you? And once again you find yourself shut out from something. 

Stepping into someone else’s shoes

Being able-bodied can make it very easy to forget the obstacles that those who are not come up against every single day of their lives. Changing rooms, where on average only one cubicle is wheelchair accessible. Getting up in the morning and being unable to put your shoes on because they’re laced and you no longer have use of your right arm. Having to ask your partner to button your shirt because you were born with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and your fingers are formed differently, making it difficult and painful to do it yourself. 

We are told so much of the time and in so many ways that fashion can be the thing that gives us a rich sense of confidence, of power, of independence. But for some, it’s the thing that snatches independence out of reach. It could be easy to shrug this off and suggest those who struggle with laces or buttons buy alternative styles that accommodate their differences better. But this type of thinking shuts out those who are not able-bodied once again, blocking them access to something as simple as the desire to buy the pretty dress, the pair of jeans, the shirt that everyone else, everyone able-bodied, is wearing. Having a disability and wearing beautifully designed clothing should not be mutually exclusive. 

Ripples not waves

But things are changing. A radical rethink is occurring in how we think about designing for disability. Searches for adaptive clothing saw an increase of 80% over 2019, according to Lyst, and brands are responding. Manchester based start-up Kintsugi recently joined the market – their design ethos based on the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold lacquer – and, amongst other things, sells skirts with an elasticated back and side Velcro fastenings to make changing easier. Elba, a London based company, sells bras with front-facing magnetic closures for those with limited mobility. And yet there’s still a ways to go. These are small steps in a very large market, and we are yet to see a true change on the highstreet and in the industry at large. A small handful of big brands in the US provide adaptive lines, but this has yet make its way to the UK. And as good as it is to see adaptive clothing making an appearance on the catwalk, this means little if those changes aren’t reflected in the real-world market. There’s an urgent need to go beyond prototypes and graduate fashion week collections, and find more adaptive clothing in a real-world setting where it can make tangible change for millions of people.

In an interview with the Guardian, Sinead Burke explained how, even as a child, she understood that “The fashion industry had power and that access to better clothes would alleviate some of the challenges I experienced […] despite it being seen as an exclusive industry, I see fashion as something that unites us.” It’s about time the industry lives up to the belief Burke, and others like her, still have in it.

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