For many years, I felt like fashion wasn’t for me. I grew up with sensory issues that were not diagnosed as autistic until my late teens, which often meant that I didn’t dress like everyone else and was sometimes mocked for choosing outfits that accommodated my needs.
Be it the itch of sequins at night or the icky feel of velour during the day, "fashion" felt like something that was happening without me. Whenever I tried to wear anything vaguely stylish, I would end up in a meltdown after trying to ignore the awful sensations all day — one of the most humiliating feelings an autistic person can likely feel.
Thankfully, in recent years, adaptive fashion has become increasingly mainstream, with brands like JAM the Label gaining placements at global Afterpay Australian Fashion Week this year.
The premise of adaptive fashion is simple: It’s clothing that has features to be more inclusive to disabled individuals, whether they have a predominantly physical condition like cerebral palsy or a more hidden one like autism. For instance, finding brands that did not have labels on the insides of their garments was a game-changer for me. Gone was the constant feeling of something niggling my neck and I was finally able to concentrate. Small changes like this bring me a sense of inner peace, enabling me to go out and about more smoothly.
Finding brands that did not have labels on the insides of their garments was a game-changer for me. Gone was the constant feeling of something niggling my neck and I was finally able to concentrate.
When it comes to wider representation, though, fashion has so often been lacking — and very often gets it wrong, too. Who can forget the wheelchair photoshoot featuring Kylie Jenner on the cover of Interview magazine back in 2015? Or the fact that whenever a celebrity is diagnosed with a new condition, they’re lauded as inspiring, which just reeks of pity porn.
Beyond fashion media, there are barriers that prevent disabled people from feeling welcome in brick-and-mortar stores, from chip-and-pin devices not being at an accessible height for wheelchair users to intrusive sensory environments such as loud music — a pet peeve and sensory issue of mine as an autistic individual.
"Many disabled people are very limited in their clothing choices because of sizing, texture and fit," journalist Cathy Reay tells Refinery29 UK. "These limitations, when coupled with the inaccessibility of navigating shops and brand websites, instils barriers to buying clothes that can mean we rarely get to wear what we want."
Victoria Jenkins, the founder of UK brand Unhidden Clothing, aims to open up that space. A garment technologist by trade, Jenkins founded her brand after meeting a cancer patient who was struggling to find clothes that made her comfortable. The individual had two stomas, a peripherally inserted central catheter line, and was being fitted for a chest port. She would often have to undress almost completely to get any sort of healthcare or simply meet her body’s needs.
In the hope of offering accessible solutions, Unhidden offers 10 core wardrobe pieces with details such as strategically placed zips and shirts with arm openings for patients undergoing treatments like chemotherapy. "At the time, no one was doing this from a positive and stylish point of view. It wasn’t being done from a sustainable, fashionable or young person’s perspective," Jenkins says. She adds: "Not being able to get dressed shouldn’t be a barrier to living life."
When Rachel and David Whittaker needed to provide a bra for their teenage daughter, who had experienced a stroke as a child, they founded BraEasy in 2018. Their adaptive bra is designed so that someone who has experienced a stroke can put it on using one hand. The brand now stocks a range of bras for various disabilities with different wiring options and a range of closure positionings. Paris-based adaptive lingerie brand Liberare also offers a range of adapted lingerie with features like magnetic back closures and adaptive front closures. Small changes like these can be major shifts for those who struggle with a hook-and-eye closure.
"Brands should always ensure they are serving the greatest number of people," said BraEasy founders Rachel and David Whittaker via email. The two have been advocating for other designers to consider their garment closures and create greater accessibility. "It’s not a competition against other brands. It’s giving options to the customer to buy what they want to wear from who they trust."
In 2021 Chamiah Dewey founded her eponymous label for people under 4'10". "We design specifically to [our customers'] body types, taking into account the different ways that someone of short stature dresses, the dexterity and mobility issues that they may have and the silhouettes that are most comfortable and flattering to them," Dewey says. The brand stocks two collections, bridal and occasion wear, as well as a shoe collection. Everything is made using eco-conscious fabrics that are sourced and produced in the UK, and the garments can include magnetic snaps instead of buttonholes. As for bridal and occasion dresses? Those can be stepped into rather than pulled on.
Runways also get their fair share of representation, Dewey says. "Something else that’s quite important to us as a brand is to use different models for each campaign and runway where possible," she notes. "It’s important for us to use different models as we develop, not only to reflect our progression as a brand but to give the opportunity to other people of short stature to be represented in the fashion industry."
Jenkins also directs her areas of concern among brands toward model representation, suggesting that when it comes to runways and marketing, a standard of one in five models identifying as disabled should be mandated.
"If people aren't forced to do it, they won't," she says. Jenkins argues for further measures, such as including alternative text on brands’ online images and as in Unhidden’s case, using all types of disabled models on runways.
Take it from me: to feel like a part of something, even if it’s a basic part of daily life, is an immense feeling. It brings me hope, and that’s an experience I wish my teenage self had. Be it adaptive brands at fashion week or small businesses with an inclusive cause, disabled individuals and their allies are creating fashion for themselves. By doing so, they’re telling disabled people that they deserve to feel great in what they wear. And I hope everyone takes notice.