Niamh Ni Hoireabhaird (Herbert) for Life and Arts fashion piece.
Niamh Ní Hoireabhaird at the FT © Charlie Bibby

For my 19th birthday, my mother gave me a beautiful grey and red coat. It was my first fashion faux pas as a new wheelchair user.

Worn standing, the coat would have hung just below my knees. In my wheelchair, it bunched up and restricted my ability to push myself. I felt doomed to a life in a navy rain poncho instead of the stylish dress coats I wished I could wear.

I started using a wheelchair because of a progressive genetic illness. In the two years since, I’ve discovered there are racks of clothes that no longer work for me. I can’t wear jeans, or indeed any trousers, for fear of revealing a builder’s bum. My condition affects my whole body, and is slowly chiselling away my dexterity. Putting the backs on an earring and closing the clasp on a necklace can find me spending an extra 10 minutes in front of the mirror, willing my fingers to co-operate. When they won’t, I shamelessly ask strangers for a hand.

Growing up, my mother taught me that physical appearance is not something you can change but that clothes and fashion can transform you, allowing you to look how you want. I’ve always felt an important connection with clothes and how they help me express myself. Yet, as my options have slowly dwindled, I’ve been frustrated by how limited my wardrobe has become.

Thankfully, with the development of accessible and adaptive fashion, things are beginning to change. In recent years, and as the subject of diversity has started gaining commercial traction, the fashion industry has started to address the needs of disabled consumers. Tommy Hilfiger stands out as a clothing brand catering to customers with disabilities. In 2016, it teamed up with Mindy Scheier, founder of the non-profit foundation Runway of Dreams, to create a collection of accessible clothes with magnetic buttons and adjustable waistlines that would allow children to dress independently, comfortably and, most importantly, like their peers.

Scheier and Hilfiger bonded over the needs of their children. Two of Hilfiger’s children are on the autism spectrum, which brings with it dexterity and spatial awareness issues, while Scheier’s son has muscular dystrophy: he wanted nothing more than to wear a pair of jeans to school, but couldn’t because of the trouble he had closing the buttons himself. “No one should be forced to wear track pants every day,” says Hilfiger of the impetus for Tommy Adaptive. “Wearing something nice, that has been designed for your needs, rather than for the convenience of your carer, helps give children — and adults — with a disability some degree of self-respect.” Currently available only in the US, the line is now in its second full collection and includes clothes for men and women. There are plans to make the range available in the UK next year.

In April, American fashion designer Anna Sui teamed up with the Cerebral Palsy Federation to help mentor a fashion show showcasing individuality, disability and style. Models included Andrea Dalzell, a former Miss Wheelchair New York, and the clothes were created with a specific focus on fit, closures and durability.

Other designers are also making garments with disability in mind. Care+Wear collaborated with Oscar de la Renta to produce a hoodie, with zipaway sides, designed for people undergoing treatment that requires central line access through the chest. And, last month, the online fashion company Asos released a festival jumpsuit with adjustable cuffs and a zip around the waist that can be worn by able-bodied people or wheelchair users. Its vibrant pattern is something often lacking in accessible fashion. But still there’s a long way to go.

I can’t wait for the day when I can roll into any shop on the high street and be inundated with choice. Most “accessible fashion” still means Velcro trousers, rain ponchos and mittens. Not exactly glamorous. Too often the phrase “function before fashion” springs to mind. Moreover, designers have a tendency to lump everyone with a disability into the same group. An elderly woman’s needs are completely different from those of a 21-year-old’s. Adaptive clothing is still a “one size fits all” kind of industry.

My dream of wearing high fashion might yet be realised. Runway shows featuring models with disabilities have been gaining traction. Seeing stylish and accessible clothing trickle slowly into the market is palpable proof the world is slowly becoming more accepting. Better late than never, I say.; @niamhnih

Follow @FTStyle on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first. Subscribe to FT Life on YouTube for the latest FT Weekend videos

Get alerts on Next Act when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article