GBC Fashion Collection: My left foot forward
When we think about the fashion industry the first things that come to mind are lights, cameras, photo-shoots and paper thin long-legged models. People don’t usually think about models with a disability, or a fashion show where the clothes are designed specifically for disabled people. And even people with disabilities may feel like ‘the designers they love don’t design for them, the venues where fashion events happen aren’t accessible, they’re told they don’t qualify for inclusion in the fashion world because their bodies don’t belong.’ It’s clear, however, that attitudes are morphing; surrounding what is beautiful along with old myths that disabled people are not fashionable or don’t want to be.
Recently, the fashion industry has put the spotlight on people with disabilities; changing perceptions that disability is unattractive. Wheel chair user Shannon Murray became Britain’s first high street disabled model in 2010 after her photo shoot for Debenhams displayed in their Oxford Street store. Seb White, a young boy with Down Syndrome was also used in a Marks and Spencer’s advert.
And then there’s the reality shows. ‘How to Look Good Naked… With a Difference‘ was a three-part special of Gok’s popular TV show. Where Gok met three disabled women with zero body confidence and tried to get all three women to feel fabulous. In 2008 BBC Three also aired ‘Britain’s Missing Top Model‘, featuring eight women with a variety of disabilities vying for a photo shoot that would appear in the ‘Marie Claire’ magazine. Some of the photo shoots included lingerie and nude modelling, no doubt challenging the concept of beauty for many viewers. Kellie Knox, who was born missing her left forearm eventually won the competition. These shows have definitely been a move in the right direction.
Various bloggers have noted the lack of designers making clothes for people using wheelchairs, or disabilities affecting, joint and muscle function, limb length and body structure. And ‘for those with physical disabilities, from arthritis to stroke sufferers, something as simple as a button can render a favourite garment un-wearable.’ To combat this, Ann Oliver launched her own fashion label Xeni, which includes trousers specially designed to provide extra length along the backline to stop them riding up when sitting in a wheelchair. Hidden magnetic fasteners to allow those with restricted movement or difficulty with fine manipulation to get dressed on their own.
Fashion designers tend to design for bodies that are thin and ambulatory. Is it idealistic to think that that the fashion industry will cater to a niche disabled market? Well maternity wear is a growing market, driven by a demand from high-profile celebs and women who wanted to go out looking chic and pregnant. They can now find elasticised skinny jeans and large stylish shirts easily.
It can be a mission for disabled people to find clothing that is both comfortable and fashionable, they often find that designer garments have to be substantially modified to accommodate a disability. But what about the amputee or the wheel chair user that wants to wear a sleek Dolce&Gabbana dress to an event? This is an example where the fashion industry, rather than a condition, can restrict disabled people’s life. Is this due to a myth that they don’t or don’t want to attend glamorous events? That they’re less concerned with beauty and clothes than others?
To fill this gap in the market many disabled people have taken to designing, creating unique fashion lines, online forums and websites of their own. Tiffiny Carlson, who was paralyzed at 14, deciding not to let her disability limit her style but quickly realised it was difficult for disabled people to find clothes that were both accessible and fashionable. So started her own website ‘Beauty Ability‘ offering wheelchair users fashion and beauty advice. Other fashionistas have created solutions for patients who use external medical devises. Including Leah Humphries, who sells Ostomy Pouch Covers on her website ‘My Heart Ties‘, Jessica Floeh, who has created her own ‘Hanky Pancreas‘ fashion line, designed to hide pumps or glucose monitors in elegant draping. And Nancy Horvath, who makes stoma covers for people with tracheostomies on her ‘fashionsforyourneck‘ website.
Stereotypes and myths surrounding disabled people and fashion are constantly being broken down. Chloe Magazine’s “Dare to Change the World Fashion Showcase,” served to challenge fashion’s perception of beauty. And then came the Paralympics, which ushered in a new legion of role-models and disabled sex-symbols including Paralympian record-breaking gold medallists Jonnie Peacocks. When it comes to the love of clothes disabled people are no different to anyone else. But high-street and high-fashion designers have a long way to catch up. Most offer maternity, plus size and petite clothing ranges but are yet to respond to the cries for garments with both functionality and style for disabled people to be widely available.