From spangles to spandex and couture to cosy, the fashion industry can seem the most inclusive trade of all. It caters to style, occasion, and fit but what about need? What about fashion and disability? Most people will think that disability is few and far between; the fashion industry is vast enough to cater to anyone’s tastes. But the label of ‘disability’- meaning someone with an impairment e.g. a wheelchair, a prosthetic of some sort, a learning difficulty, or condition that on occasion means there is a limit to what that person can undertake – is an umbrella term for a wide range of diagnosis. Because of the vastness of these diagnosis not all fashion is appropriate for everyone. We need to register this and make a change.
Assumption: Looking but not seeing the inclusion
Quite often in society we observe random actions without understanding their true meaning. In many ways we are unaware of what goes on around us because we assume something based on our own logic; our own common sense. For instance, if you see someone parking their car in a disabled bay when they look perfectly fine, generally, you wonder why?
But common sense is not that common. Sometimes we observe things but do not truly see them. Perhaps the person who parked in that disabled bay has or has had cancer, perhaps they are autistic, perhaps they have a visual or hearing impairment. Our looking but not seeing similarly extends to inclusive fashion.
Thinking about inclusive fashion: What the body may mean to others
I once watched an episode of Say Yes to the Dress Atlanta where a woman had just left rehab after becoming paraplegic. This episode dealt with the issues a wheelchair user must face, picking clothes when constantly sat down. We all know that our clothes change as we move. Things wrinkle and crease, they ride up and get snagged, but we buy them either with that in mind or we leave them in the shop because it is not worth the effort. But what about people who have to adjust their wardrobe to fit in with their everyday life? What if you clothes get caught in the wheels of your wheelchair, your trouser leg hangs hollow over a missing limb, all because of the way you have to live your life?
In this particular episode of Say Yes to the Dress Atlanta, the girl wanted a train on her wedding dress. While potentially impractical and frivolous to some; every other bride gets the option of choosing how their dress looks. Why shouldn’t she? The real tragedy would be if that she wasn’t aloud to make that choice. The real tragedy would be if she were permanently labelled ‘wheelchair bride‘ and not thought of as a person in her own right.
Showing and hiding: The inclusion of fear
A body is a body no matter its aesthetic or mechanism. A person is a person no matter what. We should all get equal choice. The fashion industry caters to many needs that could make someone self-conscious about their body or mind feel more comfortable. For example, cancer – which can be classed as a disability because of the trauma it can cause – and those who survive its trials and tribulations can either extenuate or detract from ‘problem’ areas with their clothes. Operations like lumpectomies and mastectomies, where a cancerous mass has been removed from the breast or in the case of the latter, the entire breast is removed, can feel an affront to being ourselves. Thus, fashion with varying necklines, embellishment, and construction can make people of varying insecurities feel more confident. It promotes owning our own bodies once again but it can also ask us to hide them.
This is not necessarily a bad thing – inclusive fashion is meant to make us comfortable – but we should also make people see their own beauty. We should rethink how we make our clothes and highlight the things our clothes are meant to highlight for everyone. We should be taking inspiration from a multitude of people and think how we can adapt to fit any body type or circumstance.
Mindfulness: Thinking of others as opposed to ourselves
Of course, a plethora of diverse models are now used within the fashion industry. Ethnically diverse like Halima Aden – the first model to wear a hijab and burkini within the swimsuit category of the Miss Minnesota pageant in the US. Body-aware like Melanie Gaybos taking a stand against misjudgement and prejudice against Ectodermal Dysplasia. Transcendent like Hari Nef paving the path for transgender people within the fashion industry. And many more. But it is not enough. How often do you see a disabled model walk down the runway? How often do you see adapted clothes in the stores?
We need to begin to consider people with disabilities. We need to think of those who have had to deal with something either from birth or owing to a traumatic event and who now potentially do not have the confidence to embrace themselves and their bodies through fashion.
Fashion is a diverse and beautiful industry which can make us both bloom and wither in equal measure. As Margret Attwood wrote in The Handmaid’s Tale; “Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.” A cancer survivor can find a wardrobe which will cater to their needs no matter their diagnosis or recovery. But there are more visible disabilities than you could even imagine. Some are rare, and some are common but sometimes we fail to see them and through this failure we do not think to adapt.
Doing: There is no trying when it comes to inclusive fashion
Disability is a treacherous path. Surviving and living with it can be all consuming. A mark on the body – no matter its origin – can make us feel alien in our own skin. We must be more inclusive and mindful to change this for good.
To go back to the bride in the episode of Say Yes to the Dress Atlanta she had a customised train made so it would trail off of the back of her wheelchair. Similarly, the waistline of the dress she chose had to be seriously consideration as a weak waistline would only highlight the fact that she was in a wheelchair and make her feel uncomfortable. The most important issue that the people catering to her needs had to face was make her feel as much of a bride as possible. Just like anyone else. This simple act of making someone feel like themselves not like their diagnosis made someone feel beautiful. That is the definition of inclusive fashion.
Our bodies are diverse – no one is the same as another – and sometimes, we do not feel beautiful. However, our bodies are not the problem.
Ignoring: Different to ignorance but both noninclusive
I do not like to think that people are insensitive. In my opinion people lack the common thought to separate themselves from what works for them and what can work for others when it comes to fashion. But It does not take a great deal of effort to think beyond their own needs and consider the needs of others. What would it take to move a clasp so someone could reach it? To realign a seam for comfort or reconsider a material choice? To adjust construction? In truth, not a lot, bare the consideration for others.
Nevertheless, these considerations for those in our society who fit under the umbrella of disability become marginalised when people are not mindful. Too often we are inconsiderate of other’s needs and this leads to a wider issue of obliviousness which can have mind altering effects on our conscience and our confidence. There are so many things to consider when it comes to fashion and disability. Just like maternity wear which accommodates a new and developing body, we need a wider range of selection for everyone no matter their circumstance. We must think like Walt Whitman, think ‘I am large, I contain multitudes’ when we think of the world. We must be inclusive in our fashion.