Sustainable fashion goes beyond using organic materials and provideing fair working conditions across supply chains. While these are essential pillars of sustainability, for our industry to be truly sustainable it also has to have a diverse output. And that also means creating spaces for the so-called “non-traditional” bodies. This goes from extending sizes of clothes to larger bodies to catering to disabled ones. Disabled people have different needs and what constitutes the “norm” in fashion may not work for them. For example, some may have motor issues that make it difficult to use industry standards like buttons or shoelaces. Others may find it impossible to put on garments over their heads, or end up in discomfort over pants that will bulk up in a wheelchair.
According to the CDC, 26% of adults in the United States have some type of disability, whether it’s related to mobility, cognition, hearing or vision; that’s 1 in 4 people altogether. Among those, many have difficulties dressing themselves, so it also becomes a priority to have an array of garments that makes it easier for caregivers to dress them. And, of course, fashion remains a way of self-expression, and people with disabilities do also require options to simply present themselves to the world the way they feel best showcases their style and personality. Disabled people are the largest minority in the world, with about 1 billion on the planet, 20% of whom live with great functional difficulties. It’s hardly a small crowd, yet it’s one that is widely underrepresented in the media and the fashion industry. Since there are few options, it presents a huge opportunity business-wise. In fact, Vogue Business estimates that the global market for adaptive fashion will be valued at $400 billion by 2026. Taking into account the needs of people with disabilities, we’ve prepared a short guide to the world of fashion and disability. We hope that it can serve as an introduction for abled people with less awareness of the challenges disabled folk have when it comes to getting dressed, plus the steps brands and stores are taking to make things easier for them.
Adaptive clothes are specially designed for people who have difficulty getting dressed by themselves. Usually, these garments have small yet key differences in build. Some practices in adaptive fashion include adding flap openings to put on garments, trading buttons for velcro or magnet fastenings, creating clothes with room to accommodate incontinence aids, or adding pieces of fabric that stretch in one or both directions depending on the user’s needs. While we often think of adaptive clothes as those made for people with mobility issues, there’s also something to be said about textures for neurodivergent people. Autistic people are often very sensitive to how certain fabrics feel on their skin. Luckily, brands are catching up, although there may be more options for autistic children than adults within the spectrum. Some large brands that have stepped up to the plate with sensory-friendly clothes include American Eagle with its Ne(X)t Level Stretch denim and Aerie seamless underwear, Target’s lines of sensory-friendly clothes for children and adults and Uniqlo’s comfort garments (even though they’re not marketed as sensory-friendly).
Current Challenges of Adaptive Fashion
As a whole, disabled people are often left out of fashion campaigns. Disabled bodies have traditionally been “hidden” from the public conversation, and certainly from high fashion. A lack of representation in campaigns and in the decision-making table has led to fewer options in shelves, but there’s a growing awareness of the need to include disability in the conversation. Fewer off-the-rack options also means that people with disabilities spend more money on clothes in general. They may have to adapt garments themselves or spend more money on tailoring, or get shoemakers to make extra tinkering on their footwear. For example, if someone has a limp on one leg, their shoes on that foot are bound to be torn quicker. That’ll require either constantly purchasing new shoes or having them fixed far more often; either choice can be costly.
When there are options directly made for disabled people, they’re often not marketed as such, once again leaving them out of the conversation. In early 2021, Nike released its first adaptive shoe, Go FlyEase, which was made specifically with the brand’s disabled athletes in mind. The ad campaign was poorly received due to its focus on the Go FlyEase being for “everyone”, shifting the conversation away from those that would truly benefit from this shoe. As a plus, these were limited-edition trainers, so it’ll be difficult for people with disabilities to find them later on, and the prices will surely be steeper due to the reselling market of novelty sports shoes. Generally speaking, there’s now a trend of cordless shoes in sportswear, which aren’t necessarily marketed to disabled people but can still make a world of difference to them. Just the same, velcro fastenings, often used in toddlers’ shoes, could also prove to be a great solution for adult people with motor disabilities.
Stores & Brands Stepping Up for Adaptive Fashion
Luckily, things aren’t all grim. Brands big and small have started to see the importance of stepping up to the plate and offering options for people with reduced mobility or sensory issues. Here are some of the best-known brands with available adaptive collections:
Tommy Hilfiger is one of the biggest brands to dip its toe into adaptive clothes. They’ve partnered with disability fashionistas and consultants to create lines for men, women, and children, all within the casual and laidback style the American brand is known for. They have options with easy closures, prosthetic fits, seated wear, and sensory-friendly clothing.
Target also offers adaptive clothing for kids, women, and men. Some features include side fasteners for women’s bras, flat seams, wide waistbands for a comfortable fit and side zippers.
Zappos has a wide line of adaptive products, including easy on/off shoes, AFO-friendly, easy dressing, seated clothing, orthotic friendly and sensory-friendly. They offer options for boys, girls, men and women, with a section of their available adaptive brands, including Converse Kids and Ugg.
JCPenney offers adaptive clothes, mostly for children, with adjustable features, hidden access opening for medical devices, and easy-on, easy off. Kohl’s has a similarly children-focused line that includes easy dressing, seated comfort, and sensory friendly.
There are also smaller and startup brands making strides towards a more fashionable future for disabled people. Chinese brand YVMIN partnered with Xiao Yang, a fashion influencer with a prosthetic leg, to create a beautiful collection of fashionable prosthetics. Abilitee Adaptive Wear offers many adaptive accessories, including water-resistant ostomy bag covers. Rebound Wear specialises in comfortable and easy-to-wear clothes, particularly for post-op bodies.
These are mostly available in regions like western Europe and North America, so they’re not yet fully universal solutions. However, seeing brands of different sizes create a space for different fashion needs is a major step in the right direction.
People Making a Difference
While many of the traditional issues of lack of representation persist, adaptive fashion has come a long way – and it’s because of amazing people fighting for a more inclusive industry.
One of the great trailblazers of adaptive fashion is Stephanie Thomas, a stylist specialising in creating comfortable and attractive solutions for disabled people. Thomas, a congenital amputee, has been fighting fashion industry ableism for over 30 years, and she’s often quoted as saying it’s easier to find clothing options for pets than for people with disabilities. She’s the founder of Cur8able, a service of fashion styling, content creation, coaching and consulting for disabled people and companies who are looking to include them in their products. Thomas also developed the Disability Fashion Styling System, a 3-step criteria for clothes, accessories and footwear. As a reference in the field of adaptive fashion, Thomas has served as a consultant in fashion campaigns for brands like Nike, Zappos, and Kohl’s. She also has a TED Talk about her work as a disability stylist.
Mindy Scheier worked as a designer and stylist for years. Her son, Oliver, was born with muscular dystrophy, and as a young boy asked her for jeans and other clothes that looked like those of his abled-bodied friends. Realising there weren’t many options in stores, she modified garments herself, and later set out to make adaptive clothes more commonplace. Scheier then founded the Runway of Dreams Foundation, an organisation that works towards the inclusion of adaptive options in brands and stores. She’s consulted with major adaptive fashion collections for brands like Tommy Hilfiger and Target. Scheier also has her own TED Talk.
There are also models participating in breakthrough campaigns for brands small and large. British model with Down syndrome Ellie Goldstein works extensively with Gucci, and has been on the cover of magazines like Allure, Glamour and ELLE. Jillian Mercado, a wheelchair user with muscular dystrophy, has had a fascinating career as a model, appearing in campaigns from Diesel Jeans and Target to merchandise ads for Beyoncé’s Formation tour. Multi-talented Aimee Mullins, who had both her legs amputated from fibular hemimelia, began her stay in the public eye as a Paralympic athlete in 100-meter sprint and long-jump; since, she’s turned to activism and modelling for brands like Alexander McQueen, Kenneth Cole and L’Oréal Paris.
One name worth noting is Selma Blair’s. In 2018, the Cruel Intentions actress shared with the world that she had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and in the time since she has become very vocal about living with disability. Blair has spoken at length about how hard it has been to find clothes that fit her current needs, particularly for galas and events. Having someone that notorious speak about the difficulties of navigating adaptive attire has helped open a new conversation about fashion and disability, bringing awareness to abled people outside the industry.
There are certainly more adaptive clothing options now than ever before, but there’s still so much more to be done. Catering to a market of about a billion people worldwide makes sense financially and it’s essential when it comes to creating a more inclusive industry. We need more campaigns with disabled models normalizing different bodies, and above all, we need fashion-knowledgeable people from the disabled community in the room where decisions are made. It’s essential to empower disability activists and fashionistas so they can help us pinpoint the precise issues the community faces, and how the fashion industry can solve and circumvent them.