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The Importance of Disability Representation at London Fashion Week

My life as told through outfits: the glossy magazines and rows and rows of polished, sleek, minimalist shops in Spain, the shops I couldn’t get into because there were stairs, the cold, damp car boot sales with my grandparents when I visited England, maximalist and chaotic – learning a skill my grandmother had perfected – how to find a bargain – a piece that felt like it was a scrap of your identity.    

The pieces that made me feel a part of it all; were the distressed denim jacket purchased at a flea market. My prom dress: purchased at the height of fast fashion – all bondage and garish colours – a bit tight – not tight enough.    

I felt like fashion was mine, but I didn’t feel like fashion belonged to me. It’s a complicated relationship we have with fashion as disabled people.   

We’re sold an image – and told to cut ourselves to fit into it.    

That image does not include the frustration you feel when you can’t quite fit a nice shoe over a splint. Or reach to do the poppers up on a bodysuit or force your way into a bra. 

There were no disabled fashion icons when I was younger. There would be no discussion of how clothes would look in a wheelchair – the shapes, the buttons and whether the material would get tangled. The conversation which always took precedence was how best to hide your mobility aids.     

As a teenager, I would cry. But then, I was told that I had more important problems. Can there be a bigger problem for a teenage girl than being excluded from fashion and beauty in a culture that tells us we must maintain a standard – that it’s the be-all and end-all of our worth?   

Non-disabled people tell us it shouldn’t matter – that the frustration woven through our lives doesn’t matter.  

But it goes beyond that. As children, we create an image of beauty based on what society tells us is beautiful – and that we must mask any flaw. I would put toy high-heels on my hands as a child and crawl. It never occurred to me that it wasn’t how they worked but that altered, and it would take me years to regain that pure sense of unconcern and wonder. So, to say f*uk it.  

What happens when the image of beauty and polish doesn’t look like you?  The simple, honest answer is that it seeps into you over time.   

As a child, I yearned to see myself reflected in an image. Disabled people weren’t models or actresses. So how do we begin to fray those images at their edges?    

It’s a non-disabled world, but we’re finally starting to think about some repopulation.    

The cycle continues without such efforts – an industry that has been built on generations of singly white, thin, non-disabled models.   

But even if one of our little notions only sticks with one person, if they encourage people to think differently. It may mean that future disabled children who just wanted to see themselves reflected in an image will have that freedom.

But are we all welcome now?   

We haven’t gone far enough despite our rallying cries for inclusion.  

I spoke to a photographer recently about my experience of being a teenager and the importance of representation. I was reassured: “it’s changing. It’s better.” Yes, it is, but the assessment also feels overly simplistic – we’ve come a long way, but it’s been a battle – and it will continue.     

In all the years I spent pouring over fashion magazines, I’d never heard a designer mention how their collection might work for someone who had a prosthetic or a colostomy bag or limited ability to do up the buttons.  

If those questions have ever crossed your mind, you’re probably part of the 15%   

Fashion gives people a warped view of what the world looks like. Yet, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), 15 per cent of people have some disability, comprising the world’s largest minority community.  

Fashion and beauty manufacture culture, and we need to use them. Unapologetically and ruthlessly – to create true inclusivity.    

The question shouldn’t be: are we really all welcome? But why did we ever need welcoming?    

When I was sixteen, I had thirteen or fourteen separate operations on each leg. I could not move independently for many months, and in the run-up to surgery, I had my hair cut short. To help my carers, I was put into this horrid velour purple tracksuit, washed and rewashed on an endless rotation.   

Looking into a mirror, I remember sitting weary and worn down. Somewhat broken and exhausted. I felt I had been stripped of my essence and identity. I wasn’t the teenager I should have been, and it would take many years before I retrieved the pieces of myself that were lost.    

When people say fashion doesn’t matter – I am transported back to that reflection. All the fight was taken out of me. But I also remember the momentary feeling, the little verve, and passion that I would one day burn that tracksuit and live my life on my terms.  

That’s why Team Unwritten – me and our editor Rachel – will be raising our voices by going to London Fashion Week, as thousands of nondisabled journalists and influencers before us have done. We deserve this inclusion – it’s a hard-fought victory – off our own backs. But we belong.   

When I am rolling around London wearing my mesh gemstone dress, camouflage jacket and foe Dr. Martens, which are actually well-concealed mobility aids, I’ll feel I belong – no welcome required, and wasn’t that always the point, wasn’t that what we hoped to achieve? I know it was my plan as I looked into that mirror.  

Editors note from Rachel: we will be in London for Fashion Week Friday 10th – Sunday 12th June and would love to meet up with some amazing disabled pals if you’re there too. Send me a DM on Twitter!

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