"The Disabled in Fashion"
The world of fashion carries an aura of beauty, even perfection. Gorgeous faces on the covers of fashion magazines, lovely tall slim models striding ever-so-confidently and gracefully down the catwalk – these images feed the fantasies of untold legions of us more ordinary mortals. Fashion models are popularly seen as representing an ideal to which most of us can only aspire.
The traditional and popular perception of the stylish fashion model does not include physical disabilities. Thus, fashion writer Jillian Mercado, who has muscular dystrophy, thought it would be funny if she submitted a photograph of herself, complete with wheelchair, to a contest for a new Diesel model. The joke was on her – in a good way. She won. That victory led Mercado to a busy modeling career.
Mercado joined a growing number of models whose disabilities help confer an appeal that leads them to stand out from the pack. A few examples: Moffy has both the pretty face and tall, slim figure of the classic model. But it is her crossed-eyes that catapulted her to cover girl glory; legless Kanya Sesser who specializes in modeling lingerie; Alex Minsky is a handsome man with a chiseled and dramatically tattooed physique who lost his lower right leg when serving in the military; Winnie Harlow, whose vitiligo makes irregular white patches against chocolate colored complexion; supermodel Melanie Gaydos is bald, almost toothless, visually impaired, and has a bilateral cleft palate over her upper lip due to being born with a condition called ectodermal dysplasia; and Jamie Brewer made history in 2015 when she became the first model with Down’s Syndrome to make her way down the New York Fashion Week runway201. Brewer cheerfully comments, “Young girls and even young women . . . [see me] and say, ‘Hey, if she can do it, so can I’.”
Brewer was far from the only disabled model at the 2015 New York Fashion Week program. Several models wheeled their way down the catwalk and others walked with the assistance of a cane or prosthetic leg. Handsome Jack Eyers strode down the runway flaunting a muscular chest dramatically painted in abstract patterns – as well as a prosthetic leg. Pulptastic reports that this special fashion show was made possible because New York Fashion Week designers partnered with “Fondazione Vertical, an Italian organization aimed at curing spinal cord injuries, and Models of Diversity, an organization in London that aims to make people see there is beauty in different body types, ages, and disabilities.” It is important to note that the disabled models at this glamorous show were not defined solely by their disabilities. The Pulptastic piece explained, “The models stole the spotlight – not because of their wheelchairs or canes – but because of their beauty and elegance.”
Even before Brewer’s breakthrough, New York Fashion Week had showcased disability-related programs. The International Dwarf Fashion Show took place in New York Fashion Week in 2013 and 2014 before appearing in Paris, France in 2015. The French 2015 program had fifteen female models, all less than 4 feet 4 inches tall, strutting their stuff at the French Ministry of Culture. Myriam Chalek founded the International Dwarf Fashion Show. Chalek believes that fashion is “about self-expression” and avers that this special show is “providing this community of little women with clothing that fits them physically but also mentally, emotionally, so they can feel good about themselves.”
In 2016, New York Fashion Week showcased a special event in which all models were blind. However, they did not go down the runway assisted by white canes or guide dogs. Instead, fishing line was strung along the sides of the runway to guide them and tactically evident markers were placed on the floor to alert them to the runway’s end. Ever the diversity advocate, Myriam Chalek also spearheaded the blind show. Chalek asserted, “The goal is actually to show people – to show society – that there is more than a white cane . . . more than a guide dog.” She continues that the event demonstrated that blind folks “have courage” and “can do” more than many people believe they can.
2017 saw Madeline Stuart, a young woman with Down’s Syndrome, proudly following in Brewer’s catwalk footsteps during New York Fashion Week. As was true when Brewer made history, models with a variety of disabilities appeared in that program as well as the lovely Stuart. Angela Almeida writes in Bustle, “Last February  during New York Fashion Week, FTL Moda made headlines when the Italian fashion company recruited disabled models to appear in its runway show.”
Of course, it is important not to sugarcoat disability-related issues and many disabled models have encountered fierce prejudice in their lives. Other children often teased Winnie Harlow about her contrasting skin tones when she was growing up, calling her a “cow” or “zebra.” The incessant harassment made her terribly self-conscious and led her to even think about committing suicide. Moffy recalls, “When I was little I had to wear big round glasses and an eye patch to school to try and strengthen my weaker eye. I always felt a slight separation between myself and other ‘normal’ children.” Madeline Stuart’s mother, Rosanne Stuart, recalls that shortly after her daughter was born, “Doctors told me Maddy would never amount to much.” Rosanne Stuart elaborates, “When Maddy was growing up, we faced discrimination. A lot of times, we would go to the park and parents would take their kids away from my daughter or children would walk away from her.” When the perplexed child asked why other children avoided her, “I would just tell her they had gone to get lunch or gone home for dinner.” In 2014, mother and daughter were at a fashion parade and Madeline exclaimed, “Mum me model!” Less than a year later, Madeline did her first photo shoot. Seeing how “stunning” Madeline appeared, Rosanne knew her daughter’s goal of modeling professionally was indeed realistic.
One of the most vital accomplishments of disabled fashion models is that their success encourages others with disabilities to believe a career in fashion is possible for them. But another is that their presence may encourage fashion designers to consider the disabled population when creating clothing. Fashion blogger Karin Hitselberger believes both able-bodied and disabled fail to grasp the relevance of fashion. “We may think of fashion as a very surface level thing but it gets to the core of how you present yourself to the world,” she asserts. “Just because I’m physically disabled doesn’t mean I don’t have my own style and fashion can’t be something I care about.” Hitselberger also points out that while some people regard fashion as an “exclusive club,” the truth is that “clothes are a standard of our society. Everyone wears them.”
In a similar vein, disability fashion editor Stephanie Thomas observes, “Designers are putting models with disabilities in their fashion shows, but few of the people can actually wear the clothing they’re being put in on a regular basis.” She elaborates, “We have clothing for pets” but have little clothing that is both stylish and practical “for people with disabilities and seated body types.” Thomas hopes to help change that with her website, Cur8ble, which is devoted to fashion and lifestyle issues as they impact the disabled community. Thomas uses Cur8ble to promote companies that make apparel that is fashionable and functional for the disabled.
It will probably be awhile before the physically disabled are represented in fashion in proportion to their representation in life. Disability activists have much work to do in this area as in so many others. However, as the old saying observes, variety is the spice of life. Disabled fashion models add fresh and welcome spice to the spiffily spicy world of modeling.
“9 Most Unusual Models.” ODDEE. 2/7/2014. http://www.oddee.com/item_98868.aspx
Almeida, Angela. “Why Disability Is The Latest Fashion Industry Frontier.” Bustle. Jan. 23, 2017. https://www.bustle.com/p/why-disability-is-the-latest-fashion-industry-frontier-30548
“Blind Models Take Over New York Fashion Week.” Industries for the Blind. March 21, 2016. http://www.ibmilwaukee.com/blog/social-awareness/detail/blind-models-take-over-new-york-fashion-week/
Cosser, Vicki-Marie. “Meet the disabled models changing the face of the industry.” Metro News. July 15, 2013. https://www.thesun.co.uk/archives/news/104457/toothless-bald-and-partially-blind-meet-the-new-supermodel/
Cox, Thomas. “Toothless, bald and partially blind – meet the new supermodel.” The Sun. Sept. 15, 2015. https://www.thesun.co.uk/archives/news/104457/toothless-bald-and-partially-blind-meet-the-new-supermodel/
“First Ever Models With Disabilities Grace The Catwalk In New York Fashion Week.” Pulptastic. http://pulptastic.com/ny-fashion-week-models-disabilities
Goorwich, Siam. “Dwarf fashion show in Paris to show that it’s not height that makes you a model.” Metro News. Oct. 3, 2015. http://metro.co.uk/2015/10/03/dwarf-fashion-show-hits-paris-to-show-that-its-not-height-that-makes-you-a-model-5419258/
Nianias, Helen. “Jamie Brewer: What you need to know about the first Down’s Syndrome model to walk at a New York Fashion Week.” The Independent. Feb. 15, 2015.
Ramos, Andrew. “NYFW comes to a close with the first ever all blind fashion show.” New York’s PIX11. Feb. 22, 2016. http://pix11.com/2016/02/19/nyfw-comes-to-a-close-with-first-ever-all-blind-model-fashion-show
Rodney, Dave. “From Suicide Thoughts To Finalist In American’s Next Top Model.” The Gleaner. Feb. 28, 2014. http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20140225/news/news1.html
Sowray, Bibby. “Meet Moffy, the cross-eyed model.” Telegraph. Nov. 20, 2013. http://fashion.telegraph.co.uk/news-features/TMG10460801/Meet-Moffy-the-cross-eyed-model.html
Stuart, Rosanne. “How a model with Down syndrome made it to the catwalk.” CNN.com. Dec. 29, 2015. http://www.cnn.com/2015/10/29/health/human-factor-madeline-stuart/index.html
Denise Noe is a severely and multiply disabled writer who resides in Brookhaven, Georgia. She is interested in literature, math, geology, and zoology. She collects rocks and foreign coins.