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.
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.
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.