Representing disability in the fashion industry

Guest post by Sarah Dawes from Bibble Plus who make bandana style adult bibs for drooling and dribbling difficulties.

Models on the catwalk
Models on the catwalk (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The physical appearance of people with a disability has long been taboo, avoided in discussions at all costs. This is an attempt to escape the elephant in the room almost by pretending that disabled people don’t have an appearance at all.

We often hear people with disabilities talked of with sympathy, or with awe. As caring as these attitudes may be, they place an uncomfortable distance between those with disabilities and those without. They assume that a disabled body is something to be put up with, rather than embraced, not even exploring the notion that a disabled person might want to show off their body, not hiding the bits that are different.

It’s tiring to have to define people exclusively on a deep, emotional level, trying to find commendable characteristics to replace the physical ones that can’t be mentioned. Sometimes it really is about appreciating what’s on the outside. We spend so long dwelling on the significant differences between the lifestyles of the disabled and non-disabled that we forget all we have in common – those elements of being human that have nothing to do with disability.

One of these is fashion; whatever shape your body is, you probably take an interest in what you put on it. Portrayals of the human body within the fashion industry have long been a hot topic of debate, and the lack of representation of all kinds of groups, including different weights, ages and colours, has been focused on by the media. One group that is hardly ever considered when it comes to fashion, though, is people with disabilities.

The fashion industry’s almost exclusive use of men and women above a certain height, under a certain weight, and with everything in the “right place”, imagines that everyone can, or even aspires to, look this way. More than 11 million people live with a disability in Britain, and yet they are almost non-existent in the fashion and beauty industries.

There are some who have recognised beauty in figures that aren’t the conventional shape, though.  The campaigning group Models of Diversity have recently made a documentary, showing the work they do to get disabled models recognised. They meet with leaders in the industry to promote inclusivity within fashion.

One of the models interviewed, Kelly Knox, was born without a left hand. She was the winner of Britain’s Missing Top Model in 2008, has appeared on Gok Wan’s How to Look Good Naked, and opened Pakistan fashion week, as well as appearing in a number of fashion campaigns. She aims to challenge people’s ideas about what beauty means. Having been on the catwalk for big brand P&G, she wonders why other brands can’t also embrace models with disabilities.

Actor, model and trainer Jack Eyers was born with proximal femoral focal deficiency, and had his leg amputated at 16. Involved in the Paralympic Games, he hoped there would be more disabled models in the media after the Games were over.

Demand for disabled models is slowly starting to pick up and, with the help of campaigners and ambitious disabled models, we can hope to see a wider variety of body shapes on the catwalks and in magazines in the coming years.