16 February 2015

Accessible fashion means showcasing disability on the catwalk AND providing disability access and awareness in stores.

Last week, 30 year old American Horror Story actor Jamie Brewer walked the catwalk at New York Fashion Week. Jamie is the first model with Down Syndrome to feature in NYFW. As Daily Life reported, Jamie said she hoped to show other young women that they can do anything in life. Just look at her smile!
Jamie Brewer - model with Down Syndrome - walking the catwalk at New York Fashion Week

It’s important that children and young people with disabilities see themselves represented on the catwalk. And Jamie's goal also demonstrates that it’s important that children – and adults - with disabilities see themselves represented in a wide range of occupations – operational, leadership, academic, public service, and retail roles.

Jamie modelled Carrie Hammer’s clothing line - which has the tagline ‘role models, not runway models'. Hammer aims to “empower women everywhere”.

Carrie Hammer and Jamie Brewer at NYFW
(image credit: Marc Hall)

Carrie says "Where our beauty lies is in our accomplishments and our differences- it’s time to celebrate them!” She told me that she wants all women of all abilities to feel like they're beautiful. Her website features a diverse range of women modelling her workwear - including women of colour, curvy women and a woman with a disability. A person with a disability modelling workwear validates aspirations to be a part of the workforce.

By Jamie having her moment in the fashion spotlight, it shows others with Down Syndrome and all kinds of disabilities that they are important, they are worthy of designer fashion and they have permission to take pride in how they look.

Katie Driscoll, founder of Changing the Face of Beauty – a campaign to see retailers include diverse models in their advertising, welcomes Jamie’s modelling debut. She and her daughter are pictured with Jamie, below.

“I think it is important that everyone see themselves represented in the media all the time”, Katie says.

“My daughter is part of the largest minority in the world yet the least represented in the media. The more representation there is the more confident she will feel. I want her to know that she is seen and she matters because she does.”

Jamie Brewer with Katie Driscoll and her daughter Gracie.

This is a celebration of diversity.

I love fashion and I want it to be accessible. Jamie - and other models with disabilities is a wonderful start. But accessible fashion extends to access into the store, spacious and supported changerooms, and equality and non patronising treatment from sales assistants.

Stella Young and Madeleine Sobb appeared in the Australian Human Rights Commission’s video about clothing store accessibility in 2013. They spoke of how it’s assumed that people with disabilities aren’t into fashion, and they explained the difficulties of access into stores, and also the difficulty of using change rooms. Madeleine lodged a complaint with the Human Rights Commission after sales assistants denied her from taking the clothes home to try on, and return them if they didn’t fit.
Stella Young often tweeted about venues and chain stores having poor wheelchair access.

Through her online activism, she managed to change accessibility standards at TopShop, which included disability training for staff. I believe that Mac Cosmetics didn’t heed her request.

While I have very few accessibility needs, I do sometimes find I am looked down on by sales assistants - perhaps assuming I don’t want to or shouldn’t dress well because I look different. And I also find trying on clothes very hard - because the constant scraping of them against my skin hurts, and I worry I will soil them by leaving flakes behind. There’s been times when I’ve just bought the garment because I left skin on it!

My friends have told me about their challenges with fashion - explaining the physical and attitudinal barriers.

Leisa Prowd, who has achondroplasia (dwarfism) says “they just don't make stunning women's evening wear - or anything women's fashion for that matter - in a children's size 10!”

She laments stores hanging clothing so high that only people over 6 foot can reach them (me too!). And she’d like to see more sales assistants around to provide help with reaching clothing. She also said the door gap on change rooms is too big. "Whilst they may expose the average person from the knee down you can see all I've got from the navel down sometimes!", she says.

The patronising comments and assumptions about people with disabilities loving fashion is another access barrier. Phineas Meere tells me he is often embarrassed to ask for help from sales assistants. “ I’m far from a fashion plate, and a big guy, so shop assistants look down at me.”

Fashionista Michelle Roger, who has dysautonomia, recalls similar experiences around sales assistants’ attitudes toward people with disabilities.

"Its also the attitude of what a person in a chair or with a stick should wear:, Michelle says. "People seem taken aback that I should wear a mini-skirt and high heels in my chair, or that I frock up at all. Or I get the patronising "aw isn't that cute" type of comments.”

Michelle has to wear compression stockings - and she opts for brights over beige. "For me fashion has always been part of my self expression. Just because I am sick I shouldn't have to put up with bland aides”, she says.

"In the end I am a person who loves fashion who just happens to be chronically ill and disabled. Damned if I'm going to live my life in beige and grey, sick or not. It's colour and pattern all the way!"

However, the accessibility barriers are removed with online shopping. Online shopping makes purchasing clothing easier for people with disabilities who are unable to leave the house - with retailers delivering straight to their door, and there’s the option to return the clothing if it doesn’t fit. Friends have told me what a big help this is.

Fashion has come such a long way with respect to diversity. Seeing models like Jamie Brewer on the catwalk is progress. Carrie Hammer has it right with her view for inclusivity in fashion. Seeing mannequins depicting disabilities in stores, and clothes to accommodate non-normative bodies and movement restrictions will be further progress. The fashion world can’t get complacent by thinking one model with a disability in one fashion show is enough. More designers and retailers need to include people with disabilities. And this needs to translate from the catwalk to the shopping strip - with proper access to stores and disability awareness training for staff.

Let's shake things up and normalise disability. Let's ensure this access and inclusion is on the ready to wear rack in all stores.


  1. And she looked fantastic on the catwalk. True style comes from being comfortable in your own skin and expressing yourself through your clothing, no matter your age, disability or size.

  2. If only what was portrayed (models, mannequins, sizing options, was an accurate percentage based representation of society!

  3. Wonderful! She just OWNS that catwalk. She KNOWS she's supposed to be there - and that's important. I'd also like to see women of all AGES and with different body types on the catwalk too. I'd be in it! :)

  4. "Role models, not runway models." Imagine if all fashion was showcased and advertised that way! What an amazing, colourful, vibrant, energetic place fashion shows and shops and magazines would be! But you are right: diversity in advertising is a good step but only one step. If it doesn't translate into actual accessibility for everyone, then what's the point?

  5. Wow Carly, a really enlightening read. So many things here I have never really thought about. I am not terribly into fashion but I have certainly always taken the ease of trying on clothes for granted.
    I am really liking that the world is starting to talk about more diversity in fashion models too.


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