Disability in fashion and advertising

Exploring how disability is portrayed in the fashion industry, I found a series of images that shocked me. Helmut Newton photographed non-disabled supermodel Nadja Auermann for the February 1995 US edition of Vogue:

The photo shoot was accompanied by an article about the ‘hobbling’ effects of wearing high heels:

In one of the images it appears as though Auermann is an amputee! “A woman who wears these kinds of shoes has a tough time walking by herself,” Newton is quoted as saying in the article. Apparently the article was largely regarded as offensive, although some found it empowering!

The same ‘look’ was tried out by David Bailey with Abbey Lee Kershaw for iD Magazine 15 years later, and a photo shoot with Crystal Renn by Tom Ford for Vogue Paris in 2010 (this one actually has a storyline about a model who becomes obsessed with beautifying herself through cosmetic surgery:

This was a cover for Interview magazine, socialite Kylie Jenner photographed in a wheelchair by Steven Klein in 2015:

Actually, Klein seems drawn to using wheelchairs in photo shoots. These images are from V magazine’s Spring 2015 edition:

So what is the attraction? It seems that wheelchairs are intrinsically bound up with the ideas of sexuality, domination, sado-masochism – probably because of the vulnerability they signify, the restrictions and mechanical intervention. It also seems to bear out the idea that women in wheelchairs don’t appear as vulnerable as men in wheelchairs, since they are by definition already vulnerable. To place a man in a wheelchair would in effect emasculate him, since the logical association would be with impotence. On the other hand, men displaying “relatively mild impairments“, or what Barnes (1992) calls the “partially wounded male“, are seen as brave and/or sexy – a fact that does not seem to hold true for women, who are unglamorously portrayed as evil, physically strong (undesirable) and psychologically unstable (Barnes 1992).

In a slightly different take on the use of disability and fashion, cutting edge designer Alexander McQueen, who is known for his outlandish garments and presentation techniques, staged a show entitled Asylum, where:

“models trapped inside a glass cube, with the audience outside looking in – but the models couldn’t see out. A psychiatric ward in the guise of a fashion presentation, the inmates wore hospital headbands with their feathered creations. The finale revealed another cube within the ward, within which lay McQueen’s stark pièce de résistance: a Rubenesque figure, reclining nude, her face concealed by an iron mask with tubes and her body surrounded by fluttering moths.” (DazedDigital.com)

Prior to this, he used disabled models for a fashion article in Dazed & Confused together with photographer Nick Knight, entitled Fashion Able, in order to promote his belief that “beauty can be found in extreme difference and individuality“. The accompanying article explains the rationale behind the use of alternative body types, to challenge generalized preconceptions: “In a world where the mainstream concept of what is and isn’t beautiful becomes increasingly narrow, you have to be young, you have to be thin, you should preferably be blonde, and of course, pale skinned.” The article goes on to point out that the models were cast in the usual way, with overwhelming response. Although McQueen himself admitted that it took a little persuasion, since people were initially sceptical of the fashion industry.


Public reaction to the feature was less polemic and more agreeable than the Newton, Bailey and Klein shoots – possibly as a result of including disabled models and treating them in exactly the same ways as other models (lighting, poses and even altering the garments), as well as the fact that the article is not about making a thing of their impairments, but on the contrary, treats bodily difference with sensitivity and equality. From an interview of Kate Edmunds in the Independent:

“Most people’s views of a disabled person is of someone helpless in a wheelchair, or someone they have to help across the road. People don’t even see the disabled on television, so to see them in less stereotypical roles in a fashion magazine is wonderful. Disabled people want to look as attractive as anyone else does, so why can’t they wear nice clothes?”

This is one of the stereotypes that I am setting out to challenge, since I want to show disabled people going shopping for clothes, to the cinema, having an interest in fashion, arts and culture.

Although such inclusion would seem to be a positive step for disabled people, on the other hand, it can also be perceived as a token gesture, as doctoral researcher at the London College of Fashion Cat Smith observed:

“every once in a while there will be the inclusion of disabled models in campaigns or on the catwalk, which will generate some talk and column inches, only for nothing to really come of it. Then after a while, the same thing will happen again. Unfortunately this gives the impression that the inclusion of disabled models is nothing but a tokenistic gesture, and raises questions about the motives behind it. Are these publications, designers or advertisers genuinely invested in creating more diverse representations, or are they just jumping on a bandwagon and paying lip service in an attempt to seem inclusive?”

According to Smith, McQueen engaged with disability in the most meaningful way (there were other designers involved in the project); she claims he demonstrated “an understanding of and willingness to see disability as an aesthetic possibility, something which can be worked with, rather than disguised.” She then goes on to point out the commonly held misconception about disabled people:

“that we’re not worthy of being seen and that we don’t have the same wants and desires as non-disabled people… [they] just expect that you’re not going to give a shit about how you look because you are disabled! Clothes are a very powerful tool of self-presentation… they can be used to dispel some of the myths surrounding disabled people. You don’t have to exist in a so-called ‘perfect’ body to enjoy clothes, to feel good about yourself and the way you look.”

The prevailing idea is that disabled people don’t need to bother about personal appearance, since it’s clear that the impairment is the predominant visual characteristic. As such it would really seem that shopping for clothes and being included in the mainstream fashion industry is something really empowering. I have noticed this with hair and makeup as well, when I have visited Dinara for a photo shoot – she always tries to look her best, without going over the top, but not letting herself go. There is a certain amount of pride in this, and I think it needs to be shown: that disabled people also transact in consumer activities that may not be (and don’t necessarily need to be) geared specifically towards their needs, since they are simply consumers as well and should be considered on an equal footing with non-disabled people. This empowerment fits in with Foucauldian notion of technologies of the self:

which permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality” (Foucault 1988, p 18).

As Smith points out: “For a disabled person to post a selfie, for instance, feels radical to me in many ways. It’s a way of taking back the narrative surrounding disability.” What could be more empowering than appropriating the paradigms of mainstream society and employing them to create a self image that flies in the face of contemporary norms or desirable attributes? This is the ‘queer’ edge of disability.

Models of Diversity is an organization dedicated to promoting greater diversity in the fashion, beauty and media industries. Although the Clothes Show 2015 tried to be inclusive by inviting the Director of Models with Disabilities, Chelsea Jay, to speak about disability inclusion in fashion, in an embarrassing gaffe, the organisers failed to provide wheelchair access to the stage! She claims that it is a vicious circle for disabled people trying to enter the fashion industry:

Modelling agencies say they don’t have disabled models on their books because brands won’t hire them; brands blame the modelling agencies, saying there are no models with disabilities there for them to hire. It’s impossible to point a finger at any one part of the industry.”

Cat Smith said in an interview for the Guardian:

Fashion week comes around, a couple of shows include disabled models – and that is a good thing – but the coverage that follows is often quite patronising. It often becomes a fuzzy, inspirational human interest story, aimed at a non-disabled audience, rather than a step towards real inclusivity.”

But she also conceded that Nordstrom use disabled models every season as a matter of course. One of their featured models is Jillian Mercado, who has muscular dystrophy, and who has also modeled for Diesel and Beyonce’s merchandise line:

Other high profile disabled models and actors include R. J. Mitte, who has CP and has modeled for Gap and stars in the TV series Breaking Bad:

Amputee Jack Eyers, fitness model:

Jamie Brewer, actress (American Horror Story) and model who has Down syndrome:

As well as the amputee Aimee Mullin, who has been described by People magazine as one of the 50 most beautiful people in the world:

Challenging stereotypes? Inclusion? Marketing? It gets to the point where you think the NY fashion week is including people with disabilities just to get the ratings up:

What is noticeable about many of these disabled models is that they still conform to certain norms or standards of beauty (Aimee Mullin is included in the top 50 most beautiful people, not Jillian Mercado or Jamie Bewer!). Thomas Reynolds notes that “North American culture’s way of fetishizing beauty and virility dramatically highlights the aesthetics of disability” so an amputee with an otherwise slim and healthy (sexy?) body is more socially and aesthetically acceptable than a person who uses a wheelchair or who has Down syndrome.

Looking for some more images on the internet, I came across a number of interesting photographs by James Stroud:

Viktoria by James Stroud, 2007 © the artist, from the series ‘Personal’. This picture won an award at the National Gallery’s Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2008. It is a great intimate boudoir shot with great lighting and composition. A lot of the work out there that falls outside of the categories of freak show or compassion plea seems to focus on sexuality – in this way it is a rebellion against the social system of ableism, since sexuality is a way of reclaiming the body. A quick look at Stroud’s website reveals that he has an interest in alternative bodies, and has taken a lot of influence from the work of Arbus:

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