Australia Is Finally Joining The Adaptive Fashion Revolution

Photo: All Is For All
I remember a time when 'adaptive fashion' was only available in medical stores. I remember a time when it didn’t exist at all. But things are changing. These days, a growing number of major fashion retailers — from Tommy Hilfiger to Nike — are selling adaptive clothing. 
Adaptive fashion is a term used to describe functional clothing and accessories that prioritise ease of dressing, with features like simple closures, fits for prosthetics and specific “seated-wear” designs for wheelchair users. In essence, it’s the opposite of the old adage, “fashion is pain”. That means ensuring every aspect of a piece of clothing — down to the smallest details like the exclusion of tags and only using breathable, stretchy materials — makes life easier for disabled people. 
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Who likes itchy tags, anyway? Nobody. Which is why in 2021, adaptive clothing labels are no longer marketing just to the disabled community. Instead, they’re looking to grow a broader customer base; from people who need clothes that adjust to unpredictable swelling caused by endometriosis, to people who want work shirts they can do up easily in the morning, post-surgery. And with more interest from fashion labels, comes more on-trend options. 
In other words? It’s time to throw out your preconceived notions of what adaptive clothing is and who it’s for. Because whether now or later, it could benefit you too.

I stubbornly refused to accept practicality as a good enough answer. It appears the latest generation of adaptive fashion brands agree with me.

When I was young, there was no such thing as adaptive fashion. It was simply called “clothes for the disabled” and I hated all of it with a passion. When it was time to buy new “sensible” clothes, my mum would drag me to some miserable grey warehouse. These stores always looked like giant pharmacies, the clothes section often found somewhere between toilet frames and bathroom aids.
In the middle of the aisle, tween me would loudly protest that I would never wear those “disgusting” brown pants with the huge black velcro opening. My poor mum would desperately try to calm her increasingly strong-willed child by delivering the same predictable message: “They’re practical Elly, they’re not supposed to be stylish!”. I stubbornly refused to accept practicality as a good enough answer. It appears the latest generation of adaptive fashion brands agrees with me. 
Much like the long-overdue revolution in 'plus-size fashion' over the last decade, adaptive fashion can no longer get away with ignoring style in the name of convenience. One in five Australians lives with a disability. That’s almost 4.5 million customers who’ve largely been ignored. Social reforms like the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) mean that many of us can now choose our own supports for the first time in our lives.
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And big brands are taking notice. In early August, eCommerce giant The Iconic launched an “adaptive edit”, becoming the first major retailer in Australia and New Zealand to launch a curated section for people living with disabilities and other access needs.

Historically speaking, the recognition that disabled people buy and (shock horror) may even like fashion is in itself revolutionary.

The Iconic’s edit launched with three brands, Brisbane-based label Christina Stephens, Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive and Jam The Label, created by Australian occupational therapists, Emma Clegg and Molly Rogers. But make no mistake, The Iconic’s decision to invest in adaptive clothing is a strategic one. Not only to show their customers their commitment to inclusivity is more than just words, but because it’s a smart commercial move. As a press statement from The Iconic said, “we know that people with disability are already shopping on The Iconic … we want to become a one-stop-shop for our disabled customers.”
Historically speaking, the recognition that disabled people buy and (shock horror) may even like fashion is in itself revolutionary.
For me, the growth of adaptive fashion means I’ve thrown out my hospital gown-inspired “practical” clothing. My closet, instead, has begun to overflow with Jam The Label’s oversized white-linen collared shirts with magnetic buttons and Christina Stephens’ buttery-soft long sleeve shirts that I can take off without lifting my arms. And perhaps most satisfying of all, my mum has been proven wrong; fashion can be both disability-friendly and stylish
On a broader level, adaptive clothing hitting the mainstream is a win, albeit a relatively small one. Because it means disabled people are no longer segregated from everyone else. Because whether it’s in our schools, workplaces — and yes, even in fashion spaces — people with disabilities are segregated. Which only serves to reinforce the outdated and dangerous notion that disabled people are the Other. The “less than” and the people best left “out of sight, out of mind”. 
Disabled people are none of those things, and as a disability advocate, I know ending segregation in all its forms will create a better world for everyone. Today, progress looks like our clothes on sale next to yours. And tomorrow? We’ll move to break down the next barrier. 
But for now, I’m taking great delight picturing a stubborn, fashion-obsessed, disabled tween sitting in front of a computer somewhere in Australia, no longer having to fight just to access stylish clothes.

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