WHERE ARE THE LIMITS OF FASHION DEMOCRACY; OR, HOW TO GO ABOUT DESIGNING FOR PEOPLE WITH DISABILITIES?

Sanja Grcić, fashion and costume designer, founder of the fashion label Firma by Sanja, and president of the Society for Contemporary Textile and Fashion Design SOTO

One of the most common things designers hear – and say for that matter – is that fashion has become more democratic. But what does that really mean? Where are the limits of democratic fashion if fashion is seen as a phenomenon that brings added value to a garment and the body is viewed as the object (re)presenting it? Are all bodies in the fashion circus created equal? Why is it that fashion hits the glass ceiling as soon as it comes to the colour of one’s skin, with fashion shows, magazines and advertisements everywhere showcasing beautiful pale women with standardised scrawny figures? Where in the world of fashion is there a place for the other, non-normative bodies that have aged, gained weight or developed a disability?

In recent years the fashion system and the fashion industry have been paying more attention to people with non-normative bodies, at least in terms of garment presentation if not elsewhere (with garments still designed, however, only for normative, "normal" bodies). This is especially true in advertising, and on shows like Britain's Missing Top Model, where eight girls with disabilities compete for a modelling contract. Fashion shows are no exception. As far back as 1998, Paralympic sprinter Aimee Mullins walked the runway for Alexander McQueen on special prosthetic legs designed especially for the occasion. And this year, for the first time ever in fashion history, models with disabilities took centre stage at the celebrated New York fashion week. So the limits are slowly being pushed, but external social factors rather than actual circumstances are still only too ready to continue to stigmatize age, weight and physical disabilities, limiting participation of and opportunities for the disabled in the fashion system. The ideal – and idealised – image of the body in the present-day fashion system has led to a situation where the elderly, the overweight and disabled users everywhere are still largely overlooked, indeed excluded when it comes to fashion design.

Buying clothes is a real source of frustration for people with disabilities and non-normative bodies. The battle to be fashionable is far harder to win with fashion ignoring and excluding you, even though our bodies provide such a fascinating range of challenges for designers. People who are genuinely interested in fashion design, the craft and construction of garments, should be excited about the opportunities non-normative bodies offer, instead of largely ignoring these specific, rarely encountered fashion challenges. 

Designers and fashion labels looking to design clothes for the wheelchair-bound or otherwise disabled are few and far between. People with physical disabilities are forced to revamp the standardised garments themselves – if they don’t want to be bypassed entirely by fashion’s ever-changing trends. Adapting off-the-rack garments is necessary not only when it’s a question of look or image, but also in order to improve a garment’s comfort and utility. A garment for the wheelchair-bound, for example, should come adapted for length, such that it accommodates sitting; braces require easy on-and off operation, whereas orthopaedic shoes often come in different sizes and asymmetrical configurations.

Designers looking to design garments and fashion accessories for people with disabilities therefore have to pay more attention to function rather than to form, they have to come up with pieces that will serve people with special needs, while at the same time look trendy and contemporary.

Which brings us to another hurdle in the fashion democracy scenario – the role of the designer in the fashion system. A fashion designer embodies fashion and is the central figure in the fashion industry. Under the new conditions of production, the fashion industry has abandoned its traditionally close attention to the textile/clothing industry, focusing instead on the role of the image, marketing and creativity. Fashion designers have undergone a fundamental transformation, from their role as experts in drawing, tailoring, materials processing and modelling into art directors, storytellers, eager-to-please marketing specialists who – oh so democratically – become inextricably involved with the concept and image of the ideal body. Pressured by the fashion industry’s never-ending quest for bigger reach and profits today’s designers have become the author-creators of glamorous lifestyles, largely ignoring the original functions of the garment – to cover, protect and embellish the body. We have forgotten how to design clothes that actually solve real problems and address relevant needs.

The DESIGN DIS(ABILITY) project takes fashion designers back to what fashion design is all about – solving concrete design problems and issues through functional, utilitarian, fashionable and, last but not least, affordable clothes. Until we fashion designers learn how to think and design for all human bodies, bodies that need and wear clothes, we cannot justify talking about democracy in fashion. Everything else is but a fad. I want to live in a world of fashion that is democratic enough to allow my wheelchair-bound friends the same access to glamorous clothes to wear to opening night performances at the theatre that I enjoy; in a world of fashion where disabled models walking the runway are no longer news.