I don’t mean to brag, but among my friends and family, I’m kind of known as the resident fashionista. I have a penchant for finding unique clothing pieces and putting them together in cute, original outfits; and I love looking at online slideshows of the latest haute couture shows.
One thing about which I’m even more passionate than fashion, though, is disability justice. It is defined by Mia Mingus as “a multi-issue political understanding of disability and ableism, moving away from a rights based equality model and beyond just access, to a framework that centers justice and wholeness for all disabled people and communities.”
You might think these two things are incompatible; and in the past, perhaps, they were. However, I’m delighted to report that in recent years, there has been an upsurge in disabled bodies integrating into the world of mainstream, contemporary fashion.
Here is a roundup of some of my favorite real-world examples of the intersection of disability and fashion at work.
In April of this year, five students at Cornell University, including two fiber design science majors, created an exhibit utilizing fashion to raise awareness about disability, “acknowledging the broad spectrum across which disability is defined, and changing the way students across campus think about disability and respond to it.” Each of the participating students was either involved with Cornell disability services or self-identified as “disabled.”
In The Netherlands, there is a clothing brand called Chairmelotte Wheelchair Couture, “a company offering exclusive, in-house designed, specialised fashion for ladies and gents who live in a wheelchair.” Their website declares, “The clothes are distinct from other brands thanks to a perfect fit tailored to the sitting position, concealed adaptations and extras, and the use of high-quality, mostly natural fabrics with stretch.”
In May, the Cerebral Palsy Foundation launched a six-part web series created “to challenge perceptions and increase public awareness about the need to include people with disabilities in the fashion and design industries,” partnering with fashion designer Derek Lam and six young designers from Parsons School of Design, Pratt Institute, and the Fashion Institute of Technology to create the accessible outfits featured in the series.
Also known as the INFDC, the Inclusive Fashion and Design Collective is “the first fashion trade association for people with disabilities.”
5. FTL Moda
During New York Fashion Week in February 2016, the FTL Moda shows, an Italian fashion platform that brings designers together to show their collections in a cooperative setting, featured a number of models with disabilities, including Madeline Stuart, the first runway model with Down Syndrome, and Shaholly Ayers, a fashion model born with a congenital amputation.
Back in 2015, Parsons alumna Lucy Jones won the Parsons Fashion Benefit Womenswear Designer of the Year award “with a collection designed for self-propelled, seated disabled people — a segment of society completely ignored by the fashion industry today.”
7. Nike FLYEASE
According to TIME, in 2012, high-school junior Matthew Walzer, who has cerebral palsy, wrote a letter to Nike in which he said his dream was to go off to college “without having to worry about someone coming to tie my shoes every day.” Thus, the Flyease 8, “a LeBron James-branded basketball shoe with a one-handed fastening mechanism” in which “wearers yank on a strap, which zips around the ankle as they pull,” was born.
What about ADHD?
As is so often the case, while doing research for this post, I encountered a lot of information about physical disabilities and other, more outwardly apparent mental disabilities, but there was a decided lack of references to my disability, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Granted, disabilities such as paraplegia inherently require more physical adaptability. Nevertheless, ADHD does impact a person’s embodied existence, and it would be refreshing to see fashion reflect that.
Imagine, for example, if shirts were produced with heavy fabric, thereby compressing the wearer like a weighted blanket. Or failing that, it would be great if some garments could consist of flexible, durable fibers less likely to rip should the wearer trip or fall, as ADHDers have a tendency to do. Likewise, now that Nike has conquered zip-up shoes (see above), I would love to see its product designers turn their attention to creating a running shoe with extra traction to prevent unintentional slipping. In fact, I would like all shoes to be designed this way, including non-utilitarian styles such as high-heel booties or Oxfords. After all, ADHD-induced spazziness isn’t confined to the fitness domain — trust me!