Putting it simply, fashion is part of human life, irrespective of gender, religion, sexuality, geographies and ways of life. However, it is known to contribute to forms of delusion and social exclusion, particularly with regards to people with disabilities. 80 million EU citizens have a disability of which 70% have a motor/physical one. In 2010, the European Commission adopted a strategy to break down barriers that prevent disabled people from participating in society but has this worked?
Many barriers remain including poor knowledge of the fashion/garment/footwear industries in what concerns people with disabilities and the lack of empathy from society as a whole. You could classify this as a social sustainability issue since this way of life cannot be sustained. The fashion industry must evolve in order to target every individual, not just the majority.
"One garment can’t solve all access problems, but there are ways to embed inclusive design into fashion." - Angel Dixon
From high street brands to bridal stores...
High street brands such as Primark, River Island and H&M have worked tirelessly to be more inclusive in terms of the models they use but in reality, the clothes they produce are not. When you search for disability-friendly brands, it becomes obvious that they are sparse in numbers so much so that:
“We have more clothing in stores for dogs than we do for people with disabilities.” – Stephanie Thomas.
River Island, H&M and Primark have all stocked clothing for dogs in recent years but clothes for disabled people have been nowhere to be seen. How has society allowed this to become acceptable? The frustration can be seen when reading that a woman, called Leanne, who has Ehlers Danlos Syndrome and various other related conditions including multi-systemic failure, Autonomic neuropathy and Chronic Intestinal-Pseudo Obstruction, has to pull her dress up in the air whilst her husband covers her with a dressing gown in public in order to access the various tubes to maintain her health.
Another example is from Nurani Nathoo who simply wanted to buy a wedding dress. She quickly discovered that most bridal stores could not accommodate her due to the lack of knowledge of her disability needs. In the end, it took her almost a year to find the right dress - less than two weeks before the big day.
For others like Danielle, being able to choose an outfit is a challenge in itself. Disabled people often have a support worker or family member choose an outfit for them and usually, it can be the easy option such as pyjamas or loungewear. In some cases, a disabled person can be non-verbal and thus, it is wrongly assumed that they can't be offered a choice. It would be more appropriate if the support worker actually communicated more effectively to offer them the choice that they rightfully deserve.
The rise of Adaptive Fashion
The terms 'diversity' and 'inclusivity' have recently become fashion watchwords and the industry has responded by designing lines of adaptive clothing. This type of clothing is designed to make getting dressed easier, more convenient and pain-free for differently abled people.
Luxury adaptive clothing has come about by the likes of Tommy Hilfiger who launched 'Tommy Adaptive' in 2016. This was actually inspired by Tommy's personal life, having children with autism. Such adaptations include a discreet port opening, one-handed zipper and sensory-friendly knit. The latter is beneficial for autistic people, who can be sensitive to certain sensations like a bothersome tag or rough stitching. The luxury fashion brand also encourages people to share how they wear their fashion via social media using @tommyhilfiger #tommyadaptive, thus increasing awareness amongst the brand as well as society.
“Adaptive clothing doesn’t need to be radically different from anything else. It’s just putting some thought and consideration into what people need.”- Alex Waldman, creative director at Universal Standard
Unlike Tommy Hilfiger, Universal Standard does not have a distinct category on its online store for adaptive clothing. Arguably, this is considered a better approach as Tommy Hilfiger's perspective assumes that adaptive fashion is not normal and obviously, it is. Having adaptive fashion mixed within other clothes lines such as plus size clothing allows this to be normalised across society.