The Importance of Disability Representation in Fashion



While diversity within the fashion industry appears to be on the rise, there is still a clear lack of representation for those with disabilities. There is a distinct discretion that surrounds disability, and Graham Pullin highlights that "The priority for design for disability has traditionally been to enable while attracting as little attention as possible" (Design Meets Disability, 2009).


While fashion is about creating an image and projecting that to society, it still masks disabilities by trying to portray them in a way that does not draw attention to them. It is less about creating a positive image of disability and more about discretion, creating a cultural tension between the two. There is a concern then that this notion suggests that disability is something to be ashamed of and that should be hidden. Fashion idealises the 'perfect' human form, which has little to say about diversity and disability. Fashion is not just for those who are able, anyone can enjoy fashion which is why greater visibility for those with disabilities within fashion is highly important.


There are some ways in which fashion and design, in the past, have embraced some disabilities, with little or no social stigmas surrounding them, for example, glasses are often seen as exemplar of how design and disability can work together. Back in the 1930s, people who wore glasses were viewed as disabled. Now, glasses are seen as a fashion accessory, with many people wearing them not out of necessity, but rather as a fashion statement.


Over recent years, there have been developments in the industry which have meant that disabled models received more visibility, with some arguing that 2019 was a pivotal year for disabled fashion. The rise of adaptive fashion has meant that the disabled community are finally starting to be included in the conversation.


How brands are developing accessible clothing


Fashion has progressed a long way to promote more inclusivity - up until 2019 it was limited to gender, size, race, age, size, and religion but very rarely an individual’s ability. However, in recent years mainstream companies began to release clothing lines that were more versatile; creating pieces that meant individuals no longer had to compromise on comfort, so they could wear more recognisable brands.


This acknowledgement towards the disabled community was first initiated by Tommy Hilfiger in 2016, with its new line labelled ‘Tommy Adaptive’, whereby the company had disabled designers specifically creating clothing for people with disabilities. In 2019, the market progressed exponentially with other major brands such as Nike, ASOS, and Ugg creating solutions for individuals hindered by accessibility, for example, those using wheelchairs or prosthetic limbs. This was done by creating easy closures using Velcro or magnets, plus more utility in the pieces such as internal pull-up hoops and part/side seam openings.


This expansion of adaptive clothing among brands is unsurprising, due to it being a burgeoning market. Global searches increased by 80% in 2019 and are expected to grow to $400 billion by 2026. Hence why greater investment will be focused on improving these clothing lines, thus creating smarter more accessible textiles.


This will increase society's exposure through advertisement and disabled runway models, and hopefully further reduce stigma around disabilities. However, the market still trails behind the variety standard clothing provides, with there being very few options for adaptive sportswear or environmentally friendly sourced materials.


The importance of including the disabled community in mainstream fashion


Model and Actor Jillian Mercando is one of the few models to be seen in fashion who has a physical disability. Diagnosed as a teenager with muscular dystrophy, Mercando is an activist for representing Queer, disabled Latinx in the fashion industry. In 2014, she signed with IMG models and has featured on the cover of Vogue, the runway of New York Fashion Week and has taken part in campaigns with Olay. In an interview with Advocate she said;


'"Once I kind of faced the reality of the lack of representation and inclusion there was of the disability community…that really kind of turned my whole world upside down. Because it wasn’t about me chasing my dreams anymore and being in the fashion industry or entertainment industry. It was like my existence is a political statement…. I have such an opportunity right now to really make real change within the industry.'"


Another important figure in the fight for better disability representation is Mama Cax, who was a model and advocate for inclusivity within fashion. At the age of fourteen she had her right leg amputated due to a failed hip replacement and had to use a prosthetic leg. She was a proud and innovative model who challenged the fashion industry's idealistic view of the 'perfect' human form, and had a successful career modelling for Vogue, Tommy Hilfiger, and Sephora as well as walking the catwalk at New York Fashion Week.


It is important that the industry fully embraces the need to have better disability representation in order to develop and to gain a better and wider perspective on the relationship between fashion and the collective, which would enable people to explore new and exciting ideas.


The industry is stopping itself from developing as diversity allows for creativity and innovation, and so the fact that it is not as inclusive as it should be, is a problem. Models like Mama Cax and Jillian Mercando are at the forefront of modern fashion, paving the way for a more inclusive industry as well as inspiring other young people with disabilities.


With more inclusivity, the industry would be able to dislodge harmful stereotypes of the disabled community, not only within the industry, but also in the collective, creating equality.