I’ve been interested in fashion since I was a kid.
I’ve spent many hours looking at racks of clothing, and styling and contemplating outfits.
I will freely admit I owned more than one pair of MC Hammer pants in the 90s.
My tastes weren’t always considered “conventional” — my favourite outfits as a 12-year-old included bright purple parachute pants, and a polka dot and denim shirt that was four sizes too big.
To me, it was the perfect combination of accessibility and flair.
As an adult, I’m seeing an inclusive new trend emerging in the fashion industry: accessible fashion.
Not only is adaptive clothing moving to the mainstream, but models with disabilities are also increasingly represented.
I couldn’t be more excited.
Fashion as a form of expression
Clothes, shoes, accessories, and styling were my favourite outlet for self-expression — but I grew up in Launceston, Tasmania, and that greatly affected my choices (well before the days of online shopping).
As I grew older, my love for fashion and design continued, but as a fat woman of colour I often felt frustrated by the lack of inclusiveness.
By the time I was 25, I was studying fashion design, and was mother to a young baby with a disability.
Trying to find clothes for my child that were accessible and also stylish further sparked my interest in disabled people’s relationship with and access to fashion.
It was during this time too that I began to experience the symptoms of my illnesses, and eventually I was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis and fibromyalgia.
As part of my journey to finding my identity and pride as a disabled person, and my continued search for accessible fashion, I came across an event held in 2018 by writer, appearance activist and fashionista Carly Findlay.
Carly’s “Access to Fashion” was a groundbreaking moment for the fashion industry.
It championed diversity and combined positive representation of people with disabilities in the media, with all the glamour and charm of a fashion show.
How far have we come in the last few years?
I think society’s understanding of accessibility has expanded, and the lines separating what is fashionable and what is adaptive have blurred.
I spoke with model, writer, and wheelchair user Michelle Roger, who modelled in Access to Fashion, and more recently rolled down the runway for several shows in Melbourne Fashion Week 2021.
Michelle has spent years combining disability-friendly garments with high fashion, and wants this crossover to be considered more than a niche market.
She says that modelling for a major industry event like Melbourne Fashion Week was a full circle moment and “a moment that I just didn’t actually think I would see”.
Of her recent experience working in the fashion industry, Michelle says everyone was welcoming and respectful.
“[There was a] dedication to authentically casting the show [that] ran throughout as well, and I think that’s one of the things you can tell when someone believes in diversity and inclusion in an authentic way.”
Seeing representation of diverse people with disabilities in a large industry event is a moment that model activist and fashion lover Akii Ngo has also long waited for.
“I’d like to think about myself as an activist model because I essentially accidentally started modelling because I did not see myself represented in the fashion, beauty and media industry,” Akii says.
“As a non-binary, queer, disabled, person colour from refugee background who is not your typical ‘model material’, I wanted to be able to show the world we are beautiful, and it is possible to be a model just as I am.”
For Akii, while adaptive fashion is fashion “designed with disabled people in mind”, it’s also for everyone and they believe all fashion should have adaptive options.
“Disabled people are the world’s largest ‘minority group’, so it’s essentially an untapped market of potential customers that aren’t being targeted.”
What I want the future of fashion to look like
As an aspirational young girl interested in fashion, and now proud self-confessed disabled fashionista, I welcome the discovery of new and innovative ways that amplify accessibility.
Wouldn’t you also want to have pants you can dramatically rip off with one hand, or a swimsuit with hook and loop openings that come off quickly after a long day at the beach?
I look forward to the disability community seeing themselves represented in the high fashion designer houses and the catalogues sharing the latest department store looks.
I look forward to an accessible future where disabled people are represented in all aspects of society.
Renay Barker-Mulholland is a writer, artist and a proud First Nations woman.
ABC is partnering with International Day of People with Disability to celebrate the 4.4 million Australians with disability.
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