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Different And Fashion-able

The absence of fashionable clothing for the differently abled throws up interesting insights on how fashion is perceived and why inclusivity needs to go beyond tokenism and mere function. Edited excerpts from the story.

All designs and photographs are property of Runway of Dreams Foundation, New Jersey.

What did you miss when you went shopping for clothes recently? Perhaps you didn’t even notice what you missed. Perhaps you didn’t notice the lack of differently abled shoppers in stores. Perhaps they’re not interested in ‘fashion’ in the same way the rest of us are? Perhaps their needs are so different that it is impossible for fashion to be suited to them? 

Or perhaps this is yet another a case of gross oversight and exclusion of a large group of people who have the desire and ability to partake in fashion but have no option to do so. Perhaps the fashion industry has yet another blind spot – intentional or accidental – when it comes to such consumers. I’m putting my bets on this last theory and here is why. 

Fashion may appear frivolous to some, but it is the format through which we feel good about ourselves. It is the medium through which, on a fundamental level, we feel like everybody else, who are in addition also feeling good due to their sartorial choices. While some may assume that fashion is not a real requirement for differently abled people, the reality is that the absence of fashionable clothing that caters to this segment of society inhibits their ability to partake in fashion, and as a result be in fashion. 

As one browses through stores, catalogues, advertisements, influencer styles, and so on we are always presented with a format that caters to the ideal body. A body that is able to stand. One that is symmetrical with all limbs intact. There is little acknowledgement of diversity regarding age and size, or beyond the usual gender binary, and almost never about disability. So used to this ideal are we that most of us forget that there are other realities beyond our own. In recent years, while instances of disabled models on fashion runways have increased, the same cannot be said for actual clothing lines that cater to such models. Thus, rendering such appearances as entertainment, publicity gimmicks and acts of benevolence that only serve the designer for that brief moment. Fashion is notorious for using diversity as token inspiration. This needs to change. There needs to be a shift from tokenism to real representation. 

All designs and photographs are property of Runway of Dreams Foundation, New Jersey.

In attempting to spark discussion around this change amongst fashion educators, CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America) hosted a panel on diversity and inclusivity as it related to size and ability. One of the panelists, Mindy Scheier, talked about her experience of being a parent to a child with a physical disability. Scheier’s son Oliver has muscular dystrophy, and even though she tried her best to give him the impression that he was like everybody else, she realised quickly that despite his disability it was his clothing (mostly sweatpants) that was deterring him from feeling like everyone else. She recalled one instance when Oliver came home from school and categorically asked to wear a pair of jeans like his friends did. The simplest of requests (and the easiest to grant in most cases) was Scheier’s first fashion challenge. How could he wear a pair of jeans and still be independent – that is, take them on and off himself, visit the restroom without assistance, and be confident in the way he needed to be? 

Arti Sandhu is the Associate Professor - School of Design, DAAP, University of Cincinnati.

To read the full article, click here.

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