With Sinead Burke being the first little person to ever attend the Met Gala and Selma Blair walking the red carpet of this year’s Oscars with a walking stick made of black ebony and bedazzled with a pink diamond, 2019 has certainly had its moments of glamorous disability representation. But when it comes to incorporating disability in the world of fashion there is more than visibility to address: accessibility of shopping spaces or the actual products available are equally important.
Runways are just one of many spaces in which disabled people are not represented. Have you ever seen a mannequin with a disability? Or a disabled model in a mail-order catalogue, a fashion editorial or a product shoots? Samanta Bullock is determined to change this lack of representation and has not only ensured that the products of her own collection are showcased on a variety of wheelchair users. She is also promoting a prop in the shape of a wheelchair: By being put on this stylised wheelchair seat every store mannequin turns into a wheelchair user. This so called “mannequal” was invented by Sophie Morgan. Disabled women from all over the world have also taken matters into their own hands. They show off their outfits under #babeswithmobilityaids on their social media profiles creating the visibility themselves that the fashion world has denied them so far.
Yet representation is not necessarily the biggest concern for every woman. Don’t get me wrong: representation is important! But when you can’t even enter the store because your wheelchair gets tangled up in T-shirts and dresses, the fact, that your body type is represented somewhere in there, seems less of an achievement.
Overall it appears that there is a discrepancy between the wishes and needs of everyday women and the women who are currently representing people with disabilities in the fashion industry. The first just want to get dressed in a way that works for them and then focus their attention on the things that really matter to them like their jobs, hobbies or families while the second are die-hard fashionistas unrelated to their disability. Sinead Burke’s work with luxury designer brands like Gucci is an exciting step towards social justice in fashion. Samanta Bullock’s vision of wheelchair models on every runway of every fashion show is awe-inspiring. Yet one can’t help but wonder if that is the approach that will give a wide range of disabled women the access to the fashion industry that would create the most equality for the most people. Samanta has compared the visibility of disability to that of black models who starting from a few luxury brands have now become part of mainstream fashion campaigns at all different price points. However, there are a few crucial differences between marginalised parts of the population like black people and ignored groups like women (and for that matter men) with disabilities. While people living with physical disabilities are not a minority per se, the great number of different abilities and needs means that they do not constitute a coherent group from the perspective of clothing.
It is easy to understand Sinead’s desire to be able to own and wear a beautiful beaming yellow silk designer gown. However, if you are not working for Vogue and hanging out at the Met Gala the events in your life that ask for a silk gown are probably few and rare. In addition to the sheer lack of occasions comes the corporeal factor. Anne pointed out how the structured, even stiff materials of high fashion looks are not just restricting but actively uncomfortable against a body that might have had several operations or suffers from chronic pain. After living with a wheelchair every day for the great majority (or all) of their lives, it is difficult to imagine how one’s personal clothing style might be different without the disability. Jo contemplated about her personal style for a while and concluded that she doesn’t know whether her choices of stretchy cotton shirts and skirts is due to her disability or simply because she loves it.
While disabled women like Anne or Jo have a clear understanding of the connections between affordable prices and the need of companies to keep their overhead costs low and therefor do not expect that all brands will ever cater to their specific disability, they also see the advantages of ‘cheap fashion’. Its materials often work very well for customers living with disabilities. The stretchy and soft cotton jersey of an H&M dress is a great fabric choice. It makes the garment easy to pull on and off without any assistance, it feels soft against the skin and can accommodate a great variety of movements without being restrictive. It is also inexpensive. The disability pay gap is a very real issue and it means that luxury fashion is not a real concern for most people with disabilities. Disability rights UK estimates a disability pay gap of 15 percent for the year 2018. In numbers that means that the average disabled worker earns £2,730 less per year than the average non-disabled worker. Just think how many dresses that could buy!
One thing that crystallised itself very quickly was the complete lack of interest in so-called ‘disability brands’. The comments on them were critical and ranged from mentioning their ugly designs to the lack of connections they have to the lives of the disabled women who might buy from them. As Anne puts it, there are only so many wheelchair friendly raincoats one might need, or want. Samanta also emphasised over and over again that she did not create a brand for wheelchair users but designs clothing that is comfortable to wear in a seated position.
More information about the products already on the market would make shopping more accessible. One issue for example is the length of skirts and trousers. What is looking like a chic work-appropriate pencil skirt on the model that is standing, slips up when you wear it while sitting and shows more leg than you ever planned or wanted. One easy solution would be companies providing measurements of skirts and trousers from waist to hem in the descriptions of products on their websites. If the models sit down for one picture when presenting the garment, customers in wheelchair would already get a much better idea of how said skirt would look on them. And I’m sure, after a long day of photo shooting the model would appreciate a chance to put their feet up as well!