Given the recent progress made in the inclusivity of the fashion industry for plus-size women (following the ‘Plus-Size Wars’ documentary aired on Channel 4 and the increasing power of plus-size fashion bloggers and models such as Tess Holliday and Georgina Horne), it could easily be assumed that the same progress has been made in the fight for inclusivity for those with disabilities. Sadly, however, this does not appear to be the case. When conducting research for this article I contacted Laura Bizzey, a friend of mine and a fashion enthusiast who suffers from a rare form of Muscular Dystrophy. For Laura, and others in the pioneering group of young muscular dystrophy sufferers she’s a part of called ‘Trailblazers’, exclusion from the world of fashion extends further than the obvious societal expectation of a body ideal that is impossible to attain. I discovered that accessibility on the high street and the actual style of clothes commonly on offer also need to be addressed.
The MD UK Trailblazers executed a campaign called ‘shortchanged’ that explored access to facilities on the high street for people with disabilities. For Laura, the biggest issues are the width of aisles in high street shops, access to changing facilities and the attitudes of staff: ‘Some people [as part of the ‘shortchanged’ campaign] did a ‘secret shopper’ kind of thing – they went and viewed changing rooms and accessibility without any prompting to get an accurate idea of what the service was like. It highlighted a lot of issues. Very often, places like Next and Zara use their disabled changing rooms as storage spaces.’ Speaking on the attitudes of those working in high street shops, Laura said ‘Shop assistants tend to act like it’s not their problem if the necessary facilities are not available for me. If you then ask to speak to the manager, they’re frequently very defensive and don’t address the problem.’ Laura and her peers frequently turn to online shopping to avoid the hassle of the High Street: ‘You can try stuff on in your own time and space and not have to worry about navigating aisles or searching high and low for things.’ This illustrates how being able to shop at your own leisure is something so many of us completely take for granted.
The actual clothes on offer on the high street also present a problem for those who differ from what Laura describes as the ‘very narrow body type’ mainstream fashion typically caters for. ‘I don’t think this is a problem that’s exclusive to me and my disability, I think it’s universal,’ she says. ‘Generally there are a lot of things that are too narrow a fit for me to wear – a lot of cropped tops and form-fitting things that would be the farthest thing from flattering on me.’ By Laura’s own admission, fashion is a big part of her life, and I ask her if it’s difficult to feel so excluded from something important to her. ‘It’s horrible going into shops and seeing all these things that that you know won’t work for you because of the styles that are on offer and in fashion. It can make me feel very low about my body and wish I was someone else, when actually there’s nothing wrong with the way I look. It’s hard to keep that in mind when everything is tailored for a certain body type. For me, Fashion is a key way of expressing myself and my personality – I’m quite shy in new situations. My disability makes me feel self conscious, but if I’ve got a good outfit on I can regain some confidence in myself.’
What appears on the High Street is, of course, dictated by what is happening in high fashion. Fashion Week after Fashion Week of willowy size 0 models serve to perpetrate a High Street culture where that (for the most part unattainable) body type is the ideal around which clothes are designed for the general population: ‘I know that New York Fashion Week included disabled models, but London Fashion Week had no representation of disability at all – disgraceful given it’s 2015.’ If things are to improve, there is a definite need to start at the top- start with representation of disability in runway shows and high fashion collections. ‘I think it’s really bad,’ says Laura, ‘because young people look at fashion and see that that’s the only type of person represented. It’s not possible for everybody to look like that. As a young person with a disability, I look up and see a model and think ‘there’s no way I’m ever going to look anything like that. My body’s not made like that.’ It’s incredibly demoralising.’
There are some things, however, that suggest this situation is changing for the better. Laura cites Australian model Madeline Stewart as a key inspiration for her. Stewart is an 18-year-old with Downs Syndrome working to change the face of the fashion industry. ‘I’m not trying to be conceited and say I could be a model, but I’d love to do something like that,’ says Laura, ‘I just want to say ‘Look, this is me, it doesn’t really matter what you look like.’ I could be an accurate representation of an everyday person who happens to have a disability.’ Laura infers that her disability is not what defines her – and I completely agree. ‘I think it would be really encouraging for others to see someone who has had struggles stand up and say, ‘Actually I’m happy with the way I look.’ If we can change society’s mind, it will benefit everybody.’
This exclusivity has a markedly negative impact upon the self-esteem of those who feel they are on the outside looking in: ‘I think it’s very easy to end up looking at loads of images of people who are conventionally beautiful, especially when advertising adheres to this ideal (particularly clothing companies.) You can see something on a model and it looks great, but on you it looks terrible. It’s so easy to sit on social media and keep scrolling and scrolling and thinking ‘I wish I looked like that.’ It’s so easy because that’s how we are. It definitely doesn’t help my self esteem.’ The ferocity with which we are bombarded with flawless images on social media contributes to the toxic self-hate and body dysmorphia that is seen so frequently in young people, particularly teenage girls. When this is added to the obvious difference that is the result of disability, the result is an overwhelming feeling of being excluded and set apart. ‘Fashion, as it stands currently, is not an accurate representation of society,’ Laura concludes. ‘Fashion is Fashion, it should be open to everybody.’
Where do we go from here? Although much is said about ‘society’s idea’ of beautiful, little action is taken to combat this damaging ideal. I’m unsure whether an attempt to include models of a wide range of body types in runway shows, including people with disabilities, would be met with a general reaction of relief or resentment. Recent progress in Plus-Size fashion has been incredibly heartening – it is my hope that inclusivity for people with disabilities will quickly follow suit.