Is Adaptive Clothing Adapting the Fashion Industry?

According to the World Health Organization, more than one billion people have a disability. Adaptive clothing, which offers features like magnetic buttons and zippers that require less tactile effort, can be life-changing for people with disabilities. However, despite roughly 13% of the global population living with a disability, hardly any fashion houses have produced adaptive clothing lines or made other strides within the realm of disability activism. However, there are a few, like Tommy Hilfiger, who have started launching adaptive lines designed for individuals with disabilities. With regards to the launch of Tommy Hilfiger's Tommy Adaptive line, the brand’s founder remarked: “Inclusivity and the democratization of fashion have always been at the core of our brand’s DNA. Tommy Adaptive continues to build on that vision, empowering people to express themselves through fashion.” While on the surface the launch of adaptive clothing lines has pronounced benefits, such as being a potential means of empowerment for individuals with disabilities, it is important to consider potential downsides of such clothing lines as well. Overall, while the launch of adaptive clothing lines by high-end fashion houses is promising, it is important to be nuanced while considering the potential effects that adaptive clothing lines will have on the disability community.  

Due to the groundbreaking nature of Tommy Adaptive, there was an outpouring of online debate regarding the pros and cons of an adaptive clothing line from a high-end fashion house. On Twitter, which is widely viewed as the hub for discussion in the disability community, there was a consensus that the functionality and the aesthetic beauty of the clothing in the Tommy Adaptive collection was impressive. A common issue with previous, smaller adaptive clothing lines was that many consumers were not satisfied with the appearance of the clothes themselves. Due to misrepresentations in popular culture and the mistreatment of people with disabilities, body confidence is a point of contention for individuals with disabilities. Adaptive clothing is a means to empowerment through functionality and aesthetically-pleasing designs that can provide opportunities for self-expression.

Although adaptive clothing by high-end fashion houses can produce significant, empowering benefits, one must ask whether high-end adaptive clothing lines can truly be inclusive due to exorbitant prices. The brand’s goal of democratizing fashion may be moot if the target demographic cannot obtain the collection due to economic constraints. Having a disability in the United States is excruciatingly expensive, especially without insurance. Employees with disabilities can still be legally paid under the minimum wage, and there are a range of financial battles that individuals with disabilities may face, such as regularly paying for costly medications or contracting car rental services since accessible public transportations options are unreliable due to the widespread lack of accessible infrastructure in most American cities. Therefore, while Tommy Adaptive and other adaptive clothing lines are a step toward inclusivity for individuals with disabilities, financial inclusivity must also be considered when designing adaptive clothing lines.

While some individuals with disabilities might not have the means to purchase high-end adaptive clothing, it is promising that more affordable brands, such as Target and Zappos, recently launched adaptive clothing lines. All of these brands have spurred a discussion about disabilities in the fashion industry, and hopefully more brands across the industry will follow their lead. Adaptive clothing is supportive of the disability rights movement. The benefits are plentiful, but the central tenet is that functional and attractive clothing collections can empower individuals with disabilities. There is not only a need for adaptive clothing, but there is a gaping need for more magazine campaigns featuring models with disabilities, more fashion designers with disabilities, and increased employment of individuals with disabilities across the fashion industry. Adaptive clothing is a promising start for the representation of people with disabilities in the fashion industry, yet it is only scratching the surface of what the fashion industry could unlock if it paid more attention to the disability community.

Note: This article was cross-published in the blog magazine Hoot Magazine in April 2018.