Fashion + Disability

The Misrepresentation of Disability on the High Street

Fashion is more than the clothes you wear; it expresses your personality. It provides practicality to your everyday life through holding essential items such as your phone and keys, while also expressing your sense of style. Many people tell you not to judge a book by its cover, yet fashion enables us to understand a lot about a person before we have met them. What happens when the fashion choices you want to wear become uncomfortable and, most importantly, impractical?

Why the high street?

Despite the misrepresentation of disability in fashion as a whole, let’s focus on the high street as a point of reference as it offers price ranges that would be accessible to all. It is important to note that, although fast-fashion high-street stores and websites have various issues to combat, their price range is what continues to keep them competitive and accessible. Thus, it is more important to tackle the misrepresentation of disability in fashion in a place that would offer prices that many people could afford first.

The current fashion climate

It is no secret that the representation of disability in high street fashion stores is entirely undersaturated. When walking by clothing stores, there is little representation of anyone who isn’t a tall, thin model, prompting many to advocate for their own body types to be represented in stores. However, as fashion has many issues of its own, it seems as if the representation of people with disabilities have been placed to the back of the list.

The biggest issue by far is the practicality of the clothing items. Mary Russell, a student fashion designer for people with dwarfism, stated that “I love fashion; it’s just very difficult for me to shop off the peg. I have to buy something in its entirety and then pay to alter it.” She explains how clothes on the high street are not suited to her, and often by altering the clothes, it changes its style completely. Other examples have included how jeans are too tight to sit in all day and too complex to put on, specifically with the zip and the button instead of offering an elasticated option.

By not visualising people with disabilities in shops on the high street, it creates a lack of education about disabilities, leading to a lack of awareness in the wider population. Without awareness, the high street will continue to sick to the status-quo and will not represent those that need representation the most. It forces people with disabilities to choose practicality over fashion, which is not what fashion should be about. In order for there to be change, there needs to be a voice.

Issues of the current representation

So, what about the brands that do represent people with disabilities? Tommy Hilfiger has run a successful campaign on representing disabilities in their own brand. Although commendable and successful, the store is still not monetarily accessible to the wider population. Nike has created trainers that are quick and easy to put on, but the advertisement for the trainer has no representation of any disability. More importantly, there is the issue of those that are represented on the high street, in shop windows and collaborating with brands are mostly Paralympians.

The Guardian released a well-thought article during the 2016 Paralympic games that address the issues of glorifying those with disabilities as “superheroes.” Although it is easy to see the brands’ view on the issue and assume they mean well by trying to promote people with disabilities as strong and powerful, it rather shames those who aren’t athletes. The Paralympics and Paralympians are incredibly admirable and successful, but I can only imagine what it does to the self-confidence to those who physically can’t go to the gym and only see the “superheroes” represented on the high street.

What can be done?

The high street needs to start normalising disability in fashion without the “superhero” effect. There needs to be more normalisation to the non-athlete and a wider focus on people with disabilities with different ranges of talents. A wider range would start to prompt a better range of clothing and an escape from association of disability and fashion with athleisure.

For the wider public, the education of the issue of disability in fashion is the first step. Many people do not notice the problem until it is pointed out to them. Without education, there won’t be change.

For more information, including an article on Chloe Ball-Hopkins, please visit here and here.

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