Is the fashion industry succeeding in eradicating stigma surrounding the disabled body?
“In a world where the mainstream concept of what is and isn’t beautiful becomes increasingly narrow,” read the introduction of Alexander McQueen’s 1998 guest edited issue of Dazed & Confused, “you have to be young, you have to be thin, you should preferably be blonde, and of course, pale skinned.” This reluctant truth prefacing the magazine’s feature entitled Access-Abled to celebrate disability and diversity, supposedly heralded a revolution in the fashion industry for the new millennium. Rather than normalising or erasing disability, the accompanying images shot by photographer Nick Knight showed models such as double amputee, Aimee Mullins, embracing high-fashion as means of self-empowerment. Her prosthetic limbs emerge through McQueen’s cage-like hoop skirt challenging the viewer and making us aware of the disabled body as an aesthetic possibility. “As legless and beautiful, she is an embodied paradox, asserting an inherently disruptive potential” identifies Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, theorist and author of Extraordinary Bodies, a founding text in the disability studies canon. This defiant spirit epitomised McQueen, who was devoted to combatting the prejudicial rhetoric which has surrounded images of deformity or otherness within fashion and throughout history. Speaking in a world before the advent of Instagram which has become a 24/7 visual stream of physical homogeneity and perfection, he was prescient in acknowledging how the media plays a profound role in culturally embedding a sense of marginalisation that many people with disabilities experience. Throughout his career and up until his premature death, he aimed to re-define contemporary notions of what it means to be beautiful. But nearly 20 years after this ground-breaking recognition, how far has the industry progressed in its commitment to inclusivity and eliminating ableism?
In a recent study by disability charity, Scope, it was found that 68% of disabled people expressed the need to conceal their disabilities as a consequence of the negativity and discrimination associated with them. This comes at a time when designers and editorial magazines are increasingly capitalising on the concept of female empowerment over physical perfection; notably Victoria Beckham, who commented “I want to empower women and make women look like the best versions of themselves” when referring to the breaking news that her 2017 high-street collection for TARGET will be available in plus sizes. We must question why the fashion industry continues to under acknowledge the intersectional communities of disabled women and risks disenfranchising a proportion of their consumers.
Visibility is crucial to addressing this exclusion, yet the practice of using disabled models in catwalk shows has been reduced to little more than shock tactics, a publicity stunt to propel emerging designers into the international media. Cat Smith, doctoral researcher at the London College of Fashion, refers to this promotion of disabled models as “tokenism” when we read headlines applauding this bold and revolutionary move, but very rarely do we see it filter into commercial campaigns. Smith has dedicated herself to studying representations of disability in the fashion industry through both academic research and her blog, stylishlyimpared.com. In an interview last year for Dazed’s website she criticised society’s misconceptions of the power of self-presentation for those with disabilities, and claimed it was endemic of the way society treats disabled people in general. She suggested candidly that many believe “we’re not worthy of being seen and that we don’t have the same wants and desires as non-disabled people…people just expect that you’re not going to give a shit about how you look because you are disabled!” She urges the industry to reconsider the way in which it approaches diverse casting to create a more sustainable and meaningful change in the way we conceive disabilities.
During Mercedes-Benz fashion week in Moscow last month we witnessed a positive shift in combatting fashion’s fixation on the normative physical body when Jack Eyers, the multi-hyphenate top model, actor and amputee, opened the Bezgraniz Couture show. The project itself was founded in 2010 by Janina Urussowa and Tobias Reisner, and is engaged in creating stylish and functional clothing for people with a range of disabilities. Through designing adaptive clothes and channeling pilot productions, they aim to establish a new image surrounding disability so that it is no longer something to be concealed; both firmly believe that through “changing the world of fashion – we change the world.” Similarly, Jack Eyers is representative of a new brand of disability models, and has become a prominent activist for diversity in fashion since meeting the founder of Models of Diversity four years ago. Through his matchless charisma and social consciousness, he is achieving a longevity that many current catwalk models could only dream of—from representing Antonio Urzi in New York fashion week to securing a commercial contract with Boohoo menswear. He laments that “if I’d seen more disabled models when I was growing up, maybe I would have felt more confident about myself … there’s a lot of people out there with physical disabilities that need to be inspired.”
The problem of disability representation is by no means exclusive to fashion catwalks and commercial campaigns, but for an industry so heavily defined by exteriority it’s only a matter of time before we recognise its vast potential in re-evaluating our perceptions on the disabled body. As McQueen intimated so many years ago, “give me time and I’ll give you a revolution”.
Winning Entry of Oxford University Cherwell Fashion Writing Competition 2017