Redefining Beauty: The Pursuit of Inclusivity in Women’s Fashion

by Emily Warner

Editor’s note: The phrase ‘disabled people’ in this article is not the person-first house style of Barriers to Bridges or reflects the magazine’s view of people with visible/invisible additional needs and challenges but comes from a quote within this piece. 

Photo of a young girl smiling in her garden, in her school uniform.
Photo by Emily Warner

Imagine getting ready for a night out, shimmying in your new dress, curling your hair, then spending 45 minutes trying to incorporate a medical device into your outfit, it’s not easy. I have spent the past fifteen years trying to navigate a world of women’s fashion which is wholly unsuitable for someone with a health condition, a sentiment shared by many. I spoke to someone with achondroplasia, (referred to as ‘Jane’ for her privacy) and she told me: “It’s already a difficult world for disabled people to live in, and for something as simple yet complex as fashion to be another hurdle can be really frustrating.”

I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when I was five and now wear an insulin pump, about the size of a matchbox, attached to me by a line of tubing. In primary school, I couldn’t wear a summer dress but instead had to find two-piece alternatives and my mum spent hours sewing colourful belts for my pump. I didn’t mind when I was five, but the older I got, the more acutely aware I became of looking ‘different’.

I rejected the colourful belts and began hiding the pump in my bra, as if bras weren’t uncomfortable enough. I can assure you there is no ladylike way to access a medical device shoved down there. It usually involves a less than modest hand down the cleavage and some serious contortionism. Then came the era of strapless dresses and tops, and suddenly the bra wasn’t an option anymore either. My struggle with clothing shifted from being purely a functional problem to an aesthetic one.

In asking Jane about her own experience finding clothes, she replied: “It is admittedly a bit of a nightmare […] it’s been a constant juggle between what fits, what suits me, and what I like.” Achondroplasia means that her torso is average size while her limbs are shorter than average, so finding clothes often involves chopping up, altering, and sewing regular clothes, which she admits can be “demoralising” when paying the full price for a garment.

Recently, the emergence of ‘adaptive’ clothing has sought to address the functionality issue of attire. MagnaReady was one of the first brands to do this, creating clothes with magnet-infused buttons for people with reduced mobility. When asked about her motives for starting the business, Maura Horton, founder of MagnaReady, said she was: “changing the trajectory of fashion forever.” and creating clothing that was representative and comfortable without being demeaning. Care+Wear, another adaptive clothing company, similarly wanted to place the individual at the centre of their work. Founder, Chaitenya Razdan said their products: “let you feel more like yourself” because “what you wear should not scream that you’re different.” For Katie Ellis, founder of The Able Label, it has been essential to create clothing for people with disabilities because: “we have had some customers explain that until they found our adaptive clothing, they weren’t going out, being so anxious that they wouldn’t be able to put their coat back on independently.” Feeling confident in what you wear can be life changing.

These organisations are doing incredible work, but I wonder if fashion needs to go beyond ‘adaptive’ and redefine the aesthetic standard for clothing, expanding what beauty means to include every kind of body. When Lila Moss arrived at the 2022 Met gala in a see-through dress, with her insulin pump and CGM visible, I was amazed that someone could wear their health condition with such pride. Then I asked myself, why not? This piece of equipment saves my life every single day, so the narrative around it should not be one of shame and concealment.

People with a disability make up 24% of the UK’s population. Yet in September 2023, the Guardian reported that models with visible disabilities feature in only 0.02% of fashion campaigns; that is one in five thousand. Regardless of how you view the statistics, it’s a shocking figure. Some changes have been made to try and improve this, such as the non-profit organisation Runway of Dreams and the inclusive talent agency Zebedee. Even the mainstream world of fashion has seen change, such as Vogue’s May 2023 ‘Reframing Fashion’ edition which aimed to expand definitions of beauty. However, when Sinéad Burke introduced the cover stars to Vogue readers, she wrote ‘Nothing Is More Fashionable Than Inclusivity’. Is disability just a ‘fashion’ for these companies?

Striking the correct balance between empowerment and tokenism is difficult. Particularly in a world where everything – including perhaps, disability – can be commercialised. I asked Maura Horton if she feared this move towards inclusivity was just a moment and not a movement for the industry. She replied with an emphatic “Yes, definitely” which was echoed by Katie Ellis. Maura felt some brands were “just putting people in wheelchairs down a runway and it’s the wrong type of representation for many people.”

So how can this issue be overcome? For Maura, the answer is to “let the individual tell their story and have it intertwined in the brand’s DNA” and according to Katie, “the test will be if they continue to be more inclusive […] throughout the whole chain of the business, not just in their marketing.” Fashion brands should not represent ‘Disabled talent’, as Vogue describes, but talented people who have a disability because having a health condition and feeling beautiful should not be mutually exclusive categories. For Jane: “There is a sort of beauty to it, as I’ve had to detach myself from what’s popular to form my own style.” 

For me, I have realised the importance of embracing my differences to carve out a space for disability in the fashion world. 

Clothes, and clothes that look good, are “another thing that disabled people have to adapt to in a society that already makes it very difficult for us to exist.” as Jane explains. Let’s make inclusive fashion a priority.

© 2024

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