Adaptive Fashion, What has Changed? What Needs Improvement?

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Photographer: Bianca Berg | Source: Unsplash

Adaptive fashion has gone through many changes throughout the late 2010s. Today, I will explore the past, present, and future of adaptive fashion and explain what the industry needs to do to further its inclusivity of disabled people.

How adaptive fashion used to be.

Years, ago disability (or adaptive) fashion was non-existent. Many people with disabilities couldn’t find clothes that would fit adequately over Callipers (or Splints). Those with Stoma’s and Peg systems had to wear clothes that were too tight and restrictive. Those of us in wheelchairs have to deal with tops that constantly rise and trousers that don’t go over our back—making the search for high fashion difficult.

The difficulty to find clothes was reinforced by the lack of models with disabilities (both physical and hidden.)

It was easy to understand why the fashion industry wasn’t providing any other options for clothing. Those of us with disabilities weren’t the target audience.

On top of that, clothing stores are a nightmare to navigate. With aisles that are too narrow- meaning a wheelchair can’t get through- clothes on the hangers randomly on the floor were also tricky to navigate.

Then it's the final straw of the changing room, which for some cannot provide the level of accessibility needed to have a shopping trip independently. Ultimately, going clothes shopping was a nightmare, whether with assistance or with no one around.

Whilst the fashion industry was closed off to us. We weren’t closed off to it. For a long time, those of us with disabilities put up with it because we had to.

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What adaptive fashion is like now

However, fashion brands have become more inclusive in terms of disability in recent years—both in representing us in the advertisements and the available fashion options. A significant example would be the Tommy Hilfiger adaptive range created in 2016.

The adaptive clothing range is full of clothing suitable for all ages. It is made specifically for people with disabilities. With trousers with wider legs and adjustable features for people who use prosthetics, braces and casts. To people in wheelchairs who need longer clothing on the legs and back, known as ‘seated clothing’. And easy closures such as one-handed zippers, hook and loop closures on trousers. Even today, the designers are still trying to adapt the clothing to be more accessible and inclusive.

At the time, for a high profile brand to make an exclusive range specifically for the disabled and their needs. To recognise us was a breakthrough. I remember finding out about the campaign a month or so after it was released and was overjoyed. Even if I didn’t need those adaptations, I was still happy for those who did.

On top of this, many brands have started using models with a wide range of disabilities. Even in the beauty industry. From Benefit cosmetics employing Kat Grant as a brand ambassador. To River Island hiring models with disabilities for “Labels are for clothes.” Campaign in the winter of 2018.

Outside the big fashion brands

Then Sinéad Burke, who lives with Achondroplasia and started blogging about accessibility in the fashion industry, who in 2019 became the first person with Achondroplasia to attend the MET Gala.

The most recent improvement to adaptive fashion was on 20th May 2021, when adaptive clothing Unhidden (a British adaptive clothing company) opened a pop-up shop.

The increase in representation of disability in fashion advertising and some clothing has enabled more people with disabilities to find clothes that fit them and their needs suitably. On top of that, it allows them to see themself in the media they consume and feel less isolated.

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Where does the industry improve from here?

The fashion industry’s improvements have been notable; however, just because things are better doesn’t mean further progress should stop.

Earlier I mentioned Tommy Hilfiger and their adaptive range. Now, whilst that’s brilliant, there is a big downside. Tommy Hilfiger is an expensive brand, and many disabled people struggle financially for many reasons. Such as struggling to find employment to medical bills. So whilst adaptive clothing is there for many, it is untouchable because they can’t afford it.

Bearing that financial cost in mind, cheaper and less expensive brands need to step up and make their own adaptive clothing brand or order it in. So the commodity is financially accessible, and more disabled people have access to the clothing they need.

Some people have suggested that we put the adaptive clothing in the same aisle as the typical clothing made; to make clothes shopping less segregated. And whilst that is a decent suggestion, I believe there is a better one. To make all clothing adaptive.

There’s a good argument for it. Imagine a non-disabled person suddenly has to use a prosthetic, and they bought adaptive clothing. They wouldn’t need to purchase anything else to accommodate their needs because it's already there. Also, non-disabled people would find the clothes easier to put on too, and you can always make certain parts invisible so nobody would notice.

Ultimately, the fashion industry has made small but significant steps in inclusivity, and it needs to do more. As of right now, it's a step in the right direction.

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