Fashion + Disability

Fashion + Disability: Is the industry doing enough?


When was the last time you hit the shops looking for your next night out number? Or pressed ‘Add To Cart’ on this season’s must have pieces? It’s a familiar excitement most people know, but for people living with a disability, it isn’t quite so easy. 

Adaptive clothing is invaluable to those living with a disability, but is almost unheard of within the fashion industry, especially across the realms of fast fashion and chic design. Long flowing fabric can get caught in the wheels of a wheelchair, so kimonos are a no no, and the buttons on jeans are often too difficult for those with motor neuron conditions. Garments with seams can cause sensory overload for people with autism and tight trousers don’t have space for colostomy bags, so adaptive clothing is a saving grace. With more than 13 million people in the UK living with a disability, which is one person in every five, the market, and need, for adaptive clothing is huge. ‘The global market for adaptive clothing is expected to be valued at nearly $400 billion by 2026’ says Vogue Business, but despite this demand, big name brands are still late to the party.

What is currently available?

The launch of Marks and Spencer’s ‘Easy Dressing’ kids range in 2017 made it the first high street stockist of adaptive clothing, offering Velcro instead of buttons, front and back fastenings and even babygrows with extra dimensions to allow for medical equipment. ‘Parents passionately told us that disabilities don’t define their children, so the adaptations shouldn’t define their clothes, it’s why all the products are inclusively designed and modelled closely on our main collection’ says Rebecca Garner, kidswear designer at M&S. Rebecca emphasises the views of those affected by disability, expressing the need for stylish clothes that make you feel great, whilst easily fitting a differently-abled body, which is why it couldn’t be more important for leading fashion brands to step up and provide adaptive options in their fashion-forward designs. 

In 2016, Tommy Hilfiger launched their adaptive kids collection, which has since grown to include menswear and womenswear. The collections feature the same designs found in their standard-fit styles but with small adjustments to make dressing much easier for those that need it. Small magnets sewn into fabric replace the need for buttons, whilst t-shirts have hidden Velcro openings at the seams, so can be wrapped around instead of pulled over the head. The range also features jeans with an elasticated waistband – the same style – just easy dressing for wheelchair users, especially those with a spinal cord injury.

At first glance it’s difficult to tell the difference between the regular and adaptive collections, but I guess that’s the point. These clothes are designed to look no different, but the functionality makes a huge difference to those who need it. ‘The costs of creating lines for differently-abled customers are comparable to launching an extended sizing collection’ says Vogue Business, which begs the question, why are Marks and Spencer and Tommy Hilfiger the only brands we’re seeing adaptive fashion lines from? 

Why is representation so important?

It isn’t just the lack of stylish adaptive choices that’s the problem. In a world where representation is preached and pushed for by every lacking group, the voices of disabled people just aren’t being heard. Race, gender expression and even conditions such as vitiligo have been represented in campaigns by brands such as Primark, with brands such as ASOS shunning the use of Photoshop on models, but we are yet to see models with disabilities break into the mainstream.

If disabled people aren’t being represented in campaigns and marketing, then awareness of the need for more adaptive clothing just isn’t there, meaning there is no pressure on high street retailers to include these clothing lines.

However, small changes like River Island’s 2018 campaign, pushing for more inclusivity in fashion marketing by featuring wheelchair basketball-star known only as Jordan, alongside models with Down syndrome and cerebral palsy, and Superdry introducing a disabled mannequin window display in their London store, are small steps in the right direction. Although there are clear signs of the beginning of change, these instances are few and far between, and there is still a lot more to be done until the fashion industry is doing enough.

A Gaffney (2019) ‘The $400 billion adaptive clothing opportunity’, Vogue Business. https://www.voguebusiness.com/consumers/adaptive-clothing-differently-abled-asos-target-tommy-hilfiger

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