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Disability Representation in High Fashion Campaigns

It has been no surprise that the last decade has brought forward a change of perspective if not a new standard of social acceptance towards people exhibiting visible disabilities. 2018 was seemingly the year which kickstarted a real turnaround for change in the fashion industry.

Social media evolved and enabled people with disabilities a chance to be seen and heard, having full control over how others perceived them. More importantly, being perceived in the first place. In the meantime, increasing demands called for greater diversity and the emerging movement of body positivity ultimately urged for a space where people could appreciate beauty in all kinds of variations.

Consequently, we increasingly see individuals with impairments making appearances in commercials for fashion and beauty products, in runway shows, on magazine covers & in high fashion campaigns. Stigmas associated with people with impairments are now considered ancient, slowly being eroded by a very modern and much needed representation showcased in an industry which is infamous for portraying flawless and unattainable beauty.

In 2020, fashion giants Tommy Hilfiger, Nike & Collina Strada showcased models with visible disabilities in their promotional campaigns, and even on the runway when using models in wheelchairs. In 2018, Teen Vogue infamously released not one but three separate covers of their September issue, featuring three models with disabilities. Shortly after Gucci made headlines when using a model with down-syndrome to represent their new mascara campaign, the same model then being the cover star of Allure’s December digital edition (Lovethatmax, 2021).

Tommy Hilfiger was one of the first high fashion designers to develop a clothing line created solely for people who have disabilities. Hilfiger became passionate for adaptive design upon noticing the constant struggles his autistic children have when getting dressed (Vogue Business, 2021). Although purely catered for those with disabilities, ‘Tommy Adaptive’ features the same clothing one might find at regular Tommy Hilfiger stores- the only difference being small tweaks made to the design which are proved to be more inclusive towards the disabled community. Such features and alterations include magnetic buttons, Velcro openings & interior toggles (Tommy Hilfiger, n.d.).

However, up until the last few years, the fashion industry paid minimal consideration to concerns of gender, sexual orientation & ethnicity, never mind disability. The fashion industry’s disregard for disability is seen to be at odds with the dominant aesthetic taste, but it also embodies and promotes broadly accepted societal beliefs regarding the kind of bodies and faces that should be admired, ornamented & imitated. These exclusions do not seem to be by coincidence or by accident. The so-called marginalization of diversity is intentionally created to ultimately maximize profit and avoid risk in an industry worth trillions of pounds (Entwistle, 2002).

Representation of disability in the fashion world may be treated as strange or uncommon by the public, which is troublesome for promotional campaigns whereby the use of disability inclusive images are believed to disinterest customers. Psychological research such as Bandura’s Doppelganger theory suggest that we are increasingly attracted to people who resemble us, or who live a life which we wish to emulate (Bandura, 1977). The fashion industry has been able to successfully shape society standards since the beginning of time, thus unless industry leaders choose to deliberately stray from the ideal beauty standard, the standard which they’ve practiced and preached will remain.

This constrained perspective may explain why so few promotional campaigns in fashion or beauty have included people with disabilities. Images must emanate “power, credibility and appeal”- qualities which are disconnected to disability, in a field where “image is everything” (Ganahl and Arbuckle, 2001) (Foster and Pettinicchio, 2021). This assertion also implies that it is a form of deliberate governance that spurs innovation. A form of capitalism that challenges the balance between risk and reward and which generally excludes people with disabilities from the high fashion industry.

Although the inclusion of disability in the fashion & beauty industries has begun significant advancement, there is still room for improvement. It has become imperative we moved past token gestures and flawless aesthetics, and whilst we need more disability inclusive editorials, there should also be room for those with impairments behind the scenes. What we now need to see is disabled persons as industry leaders, business owners, groups in charge of organising casting calls, hiring agencies, and all other establishments which have traditionally overlooked us.

Then again, it serves no purpose to see someone who resembles you in a commercial if the company is unable to satisfy your expectations.

The last few years was a time for revelation or a rebirth in the fashion industry. At last, people finally acknowledged the voices of those who were in the shadows. The world was compelled to halt and pay attention as companies which had previously gotten away, were now held accountable and criticised for their historically discriminatory treatment of minority groups.

The upcoming years leave plenty of space for more change, and more action.


Bandura, A., 1977. Social learning theory. 1st ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice-Hall.


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