Ableism in the Fashion Industry

March 13, 2014 • Fashion

The discussion about diversity in fashion  isn’t a new one.  Alexander McQueen’s “Fashion-able?” issue of Dazed and Confused in 1998 remains one of the few examples of disabled bodies being prominently featured in a fashion magazine, and he is still one of the only designers to have used disabled models on the catwalk (and I vividly remember being blown away the first time I saw the carved wooden legs he designed for Aimee Mullins for one of his shows). 

When I attended the Better Lives lecture on ableism in fashion at the London College of Fashion last Tuesday, the speakers were all in agreement that these discussions seem to be cyclical — that every now and again we will see disabled models used in fashion shoots or on the runway, with lots of coverage in the media only for things to end there and repeat a few years later. As Michael Shamash put it, “I feel like I’ve been writing about the same thing for fifteen years.”

What needs to be done, agreed the speakers, is for the discussion to be pushed further, leaving behind tokenism and moving towards inclusivity. “We all have our unique gorgeousness” said Michael, so why shouldn’t this be represented? Ableism, argued Stef Reid, runs deep in society and often materializes in ideas of normalcy. Disabled people feel pressure to normalise as much as possible, to hide their impairments. But we are seeing a change in this, suggests Reid. Manufacturers such as the Alternative Limb Project are creating prosthetics which highlight and celebrate differences, rather than making them invisible, and the impact of this celebration of difference can be seen on individuals. People’s perceptions are shaped by the media they consume, and positive representations of diverse bodies can influence a more positive body image in people.

Kelly Knox also spoke about some of the feedback she’s received from people on her modelling career. Knox, who was born with one arm, said that she applied for Britain’s Missing Top Model (a modelling competition for disabled women aired in 2008), not because she necessarily wanted a career in the industry, but rather to show that it was possible to be disabled and beautiful. She read an email from a woman who told her that she had stopped wearing her prosthetic arm after seeing her on the show. This is the impact that seeing diverse bodies in the media has on people, she suggested. Similarly, Reid and Knox discussed the positive reactions to a campaign for the Debenhams department store which they both appeared in, arguing that the public is not only accepting of diversity in fashion media, but that people are craving change, they want to see a wider range of bodies represented.


It is the industry which is conservative rather than designers, and Knox argued that the next generation of designers is receptive to, and in some cases, actively seeking change. Fashion is about creativity, and the benefits of designing for diverse bodies should be integral in fashion education. What we see in the fashion industry reflects society at large, after all. It was suggested that increased visibility of disabled people in other areas of society will see more diversity in fashion. The only way to ensure this diversity in front of the camera is by creating a more diverse workforce behind the scenes in order to challenge the status quo. “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” so says Audre Lorde.

In the end, the influence of activists working outside the industry can only do so much. It is the people working within the industry who will ultimately decide. When it comes to education, the benefits of creatively designing for different body types is one way of integrating diversity, but the psychological impact of this inclusiveness must also be considered. After all — there is freedom to be found when you can can see yourself in fashion.

The frustrations voiced by the panel showed that this freedom will not come easily. Evidence suggests that the public are accepting and welcoming of diverse bodies in fashion, and the impact that the visibility of disabled models has on other disabled people is evident. But we need to push the conversation around disability, ableism and fashion further: change won’t come just from pictures of ourselves, but in our design studios. We are seeing changes (eg the recent Diesel WEARECONNECTED campaign), but the momentum needs to be maintained. 

After all, I don’t want to still be having this conversation in fifteen years.


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  • Wheelingalong24

    I totally agree that a lot of disabled representation in fashion has been…at best tokenism & at worst a bid for publicity.

    However, whilst I might agree that any change to this has to come from within the fashion industry, I think that in the age of social media the disabled community is able to be more visible in fashion than ever before. I think that social media & blogging are putting pressure on brands to recognise that – along with other under represented groups e.g. 40+, plus size etc – the disabled community have a part to play in the future of fashion.

    Disability fashion blogs like Jillian Mercado’s are, in my opinion going to be the start of the change. Much as plus-sized fashion blogs have been.


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