(Ad)dressing disability: the importance of accessible fashion
19 September 2022 at 1:46 pm
A designer with lived experience of disability says it’s time the fashion industry became more inclusive and universal.
A Melbourne-based fashion designer is using her lived experience of disability to push the industry to become more accessible.
RMIT alumnus Rachel Shugg, who uses a wheelchair, fell in love with fashion and the idea of design without knowing about adaptive clothing. But her knowledge and interest grew as she became “increasingly frustrated” at the lack of clothing available to suit her body and those of her disabled peers.
Now a qualified fashion designer working with inclusion-focused Jam the Label, she sees herself as having a responsibility to help “push the industry forward to a more inclusive environment,” she said.
“[I] aim to destigmatise and normalise disabled bodies and the lived experience of people with disabilities and hopefully, further innovate accessible design and cross-disciplinary practises,” she said.
What is accessible fashion?
Accessible fashion, Shugg said, stems from the concept of universal design. The concept exists in other areas like architecture and education, and in fashion it refers to designing clothes to suit people of all abilities.
It takes into account things like alternative openings and consideration of how to put on garments differently, and features adaptations like zips and magnets.
“It puts the person who has an injury or disability first and foremost in its design principles and considerations,” Shugg explained.
Being unable to find accessible clothes can negatively impact people’s self-esteem and confidence, she said.
“I’ve experienced that myself. You sort of dissociate from your body because this garment, this reflection of society, is telling you that you aren’t supposed to be here. You’re ostracised,” Shugg explained.
Through her designs, she hopes to re-establish positive relationships with clothing and create a connection between garments and bodies that makes people with disabilities feel stylish, confident and comfortable.
Accessible garments have particular design features that make them easy to put on and take off, and comfortable to wear.
Magnets are a common adaptation to adjust for dexterity levels and limb fatigue in wearers and allow for quick and easy dressing and undressing.
Bias binds around the shoulders account for missing limbs while allowing garments to close around the body with magnets.
Shugg also uses what she calls the roll back method, which uses large pieces of soft material that encase the legs of a wheelchair user, creating balance and comfort. This was drawn from her personal experience in using a wheelchair.
Her designs also often use pleating, which allows for greater movement and flexibility and lets the garment move with the wearer and return to its original shape without compromising the garment’s structural integrity or putting the wearer at risk of injury.
As well as physical construction, she also considers sensory issues around clothing like how certain fabrics feel on the skin. Shugg said she favours soft materials like wool, silk and cashmere.
She uses flat seams so there is no irritation or potential for friction. This is important for wheelchair users, who need to avoid seams around their waist or back that can lead to pressure sores, as well as those with sensory needs.
Where is the fashion industry at?
The fashion industry has typically not been very inclusive. Change is coming, Shugg said, though slowly.
While we’re now seeing diverse faces in fashion advertising campaigns, Shugg said any change must be real and embedded.
“I do think the fashion industry is still so exclusionary and elitist and alienating, and it can reflect societal attitudes that are enforced by the industry’s tokenistic attempts at including diverse voices,” she said.
“I think sometimes that can potentially have the ability to do more damage than good because if it’s only tokenistic, where does the change really happen?”
Shugg also links accessibility in fashion to the proliferation of fast fashion, where designs are churned out and churned through in a matter of weeks.
Adopting a slower design practice, she said, would enable people to call out the industry.
“I think a slower design approach can embrace universal design [of clothing] systematically and design for everybody. This sort of empathetic approach can consider the needs and wants for a large group of people, which is what universal design is,” Shugg explained.
Part of that change will come with the inclusion of diverse groups of people at every level of the fashion industry: behind the camera, in board meetings, in design, in construction of the garments and finally, in front of the camera and on magazine covers.
Education for the wider public is also vital in bringing about a more inclusive and slower fashion movement, Shugg added.
“We need to start teaching people about marginalised bodies and disabled bodies, and create opportunities to listen and learn from people who have experienced this gap in the market from the lack of empathy and exclusion,” she said.
“Creativity and change is often created through collaboration of skills and experiences and talents… so bringing together multidisciplinary paths of diverse experiences can unify voices and aim to systematically disrupt the industry so we can start to see a change that has long been due.”
Room for more to close the gap
Shugg said the response from the disability community to her designs has been “incredible” and that it highlighted the gap in the market and the need for more accessible styles.
She also wants to see more opportunities for people with disabilities to be employed in the fashion industry, to inform design and construction.
Shugg admitted that although being at the forefront of change can feel “a little daunting at times”, she hopes that her work will encourage other emerging designers to consider accessible fashion design.
“I think the amount of talent and hard work and passion I know future fashion designers have, has the ability to push the fashion industry forward to a more inclusive and sustainable future,” she said.
“I want my work to be practical and available but also serve as a focus for deeper consideration and thoughts and ultimately promote more creative and inclusive work by future fashion designers.
“Being a fashion designer with the experience of having a disability is an enormous privilege.”