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Pain Chronicles: Ethical Fashion is Harder When You’re Disabled

Pain Chronicles is a monthly(-ish) column from Caroline McDonagh-Darwin about coming to terms with living with a chronic illness. It will include funny stories and brutal honesty, with some thrown-in chats with her mum Shaz, and other friends too, along the way. 

Note – where possible, I’m including ethical comparisons of clothing brands from

Last night I ate spag bol while wearing a white vest top, you can imagine what happened next. Only one of my £3, fast-fashion, I have about 4 of them, vest tops though. 

As it spins now in the washing machine, I am not all that invested in if the stain remover will work because it’ll be relegated to a PJ top if necessary. 

In recent years, I’ve moved away from fast fashion. I haven’t bought a vest top that costs less £8 for a long time, because I know that £3 is not adequately paying the person who stitched it. I obviously haven’t gotten rid of the fast fashion stuff with wear still in them, but I’m trying not to buy any more. Trying. Because my disabilities mean I run into issues.

The first is the cost. Obviously, ethical stuff costs more – they need to source materials that are less harmful to the environment, and they need to pay people to sew them. Given that disabled people are more likely to live in poverty, it can be a barrier to ethical fashion. 

I’m lucky to be in a position at the moment where I can make a commitment to not buy fast fashion anymore, but not everybody can do that. I shop second-hand a lot but it’s not a perfect solution if you need an outfit for a particular thing, like a wedding or interview. 

On top of the extra initial cost is the replacement cost. Most people will risk a stain with spaghetti bolognese, but clumsy, shaky hands Caroline can be relied upon to get some food or drink on her clothes each day. If my M&S (“It’s a Start” – so more ethical than my practically disposable bolognese-soaked Peacocks essentials) vest top ends up with curry sauce infused into the fabric, we got problems. 

Another issue is that my clumsiness causes damage. When I fell and broke my foot, my Dorothy Perkins (now a part of BooHoo, with a “We avoid” rating) and brand new M&S dress took a skid along the pavement. I’ve torn off several buttons in one fell swoop, ripped apart the seams of leggings when colliding with the edges of coffee tables, and laddered several pairs of tights on bollards or just my own garden wall. 

Mobility aids present a further risk of damage. My favourite red dress, originally from Yours but purchased second-hand in a charity shop, got caught in the wheels of my walker and now has a big hole at around my ankle level. While I should be able to get it taken up to a little higher than the rip, I’m still gutted every single time I look at it. I’ve put a walking stick down on the edge of a maxi dress (being short doesn’t help) and had skirts and cardigans get wrapped around wheelchair wheels. 

And that’s before you get into disability-friendly clothing. All the brands I’ve mentioned so far are just regular brands, with zips I sometimes can’t manage to hold with pained fingers, or clasps behind your back that are no good for bad shoulders. Kintsugi Clothing  is sadly closing down, but their clothes had velcro fastenings and stretch waists, and there was even a “Chair Friendly” category on their site. 

My cheap and cheerful vest tops are easy to put on, they stretch, I don’t have to lift my arms above my head, and they don’t press uncomfortably on any of my pressure points. Some days my allodynia, which means I experience pain from non-painful stimuli, is playing up and I can’t wear many different kinds of material, I struggle with wool dresses because I can’t regulate my temperature that well. 

I have to wear sturdy footwear with ankle support, and I’m much harder on my shoes, so my go to is Converse (“It’s A Start”), my mum’s Dr Martens (“Not Good Enough”). Particularly when it comes to footwear, I have to make a judgement call. For me to live as a disabled person, sometimes the functionality of what I buy needs to be prioritised above ethics.

Another challenge is that I’m plus-size. Lots of ethical brands  only go up to a UK size 18, if you’re lucky. Lucy & Yak (“Good”) have recently been praised for increasing their plus-size offerings, although their dungarees only just go up to my size. However, Snag Tights consider plus-sizes in the making of their garments, their offerings being some of my favourites. Thankfully, the plus-size ethical industry seems to be increasing every day.

I desperately want to be ethical about fashion. I think about the poor conditions for garment workers that contribute to that dress I bought for a tenner and have worn once (and that I plan to donate so someone else can love it) and feel massively guilty, but it’s a difficult balance when you’re disabled. 

But the fact is, not everybody can do it. I can’t do it in all elements of my life – footwear being the main one. 

I am trying my best. I could make better choices, and sometimes my head is turned by a mannequin in New Look (“Not Good Enough”) or an ad for ASOS (“Not Good Enough”) and I have to remind myself of my commitment to ethics. 

But I will keep on trying. And I hope you will too. 

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One reply on “Pain Chronicles: Ethical Fashion is Harder When You’re Disabled”

This is such a nightmare as a 4ft 10 pear-shaped disabled woman. When can I buy petit range items where the top half is size 10 and bottom half size 16 that is ethical yet affordable on a benefits only income, buyable online as housebound, and comfortable to wear with chronic pain?!

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