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Being Fashion-able: Controversy around Disabled Models

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Olga Vainshtein

How does fashion negotiate disability issues? How do we perceive the disabled models on the cat walk? Drawing on methodology of fashion studies, body studies and the history of emotions (the works of C.Evans, J.Entwhistle, E.Fischer, H.Wulff), this paper is aimed at examining these questions, analysing the recent fashion events with disabled models. The paper is focused around the debates about the representations of deviant bodies in fashion. It argues that fashion as cultural production successfully generates new visual languages, breaking the barriers of invisibility traditionally associated with disabled bodies and contributing to human well-being.

When Aimee Mullins made her debut at the catwalk in 1999 at the invitation of Alexander McQueen, the disabled models were rarely seen in the world of fashion. Currently the policy of challenging visual stereotypes regarding disability has become a popular trend.

In 2008 the BBC3 programme Britain’s Missing Top Model (BMTM) stirred up the debate around the theme. The reality show followed the competition among eight girls with different disabilities. In September 2010 Tanja Kiewitz, appeared in the advertisement that was part of a fundraising campaign by a non-profit organization, CAP48. The attractive girl wearing a black bra smiled to the viewers exposing her left arm that ended, handless, just below the elbow.  One of the last events in this series was Debenham’s Autumn 2010 window campaign featuring disabled model Shannon Murray in a wheelchair. Shannon was the first disabled model to feature in an advertising campaign for a high street fashion brand. It was estimated as “another small step towards inclusion and representation”.

Debenhams campaign was followed by the special event during London Fashion week in September 2010 when HAFAD (Hammersmith and Fulham Action on Disability), an independent organization in London that promotes disability awareness, organized the show with disabled models “Fashion with Passion”. As a result the sold-out event raised over £5000.  In spite of all these positive developments even now the appearance of a disabled model on a catwalk is still likely to create the sensation, as demonstrated by the recent case of Mario Galla. The disabled model Mario Galla participated in the show of Michael Michalsky during the Berlin Fashion week in summer 2010. Galla walked on a prosthetic leg, dressed in shorts, so that his prosthesis was clearly visible.

The context of fashion show legitimizes the prosthetic body parts, making them visible and publicly acceptable. A new significant tendency; “prosthetics with aesthetics” is currently becoming the significant trend. Fashion system helps to overcome intellectual uncertainty of the viewers by switching the emotional frames. In the field of emotions fashion as performance possesses a vast transformative potential: it can create new emotional communities.

Fashion emerges as the permanent experiment with our corporeal sensibility, the vehicle of retuning our emotions in the face of otherness. This is the point where fashion meets diversity, helping to set a more tolerant environment.


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Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported
This Work, Being Fashion-able: Controversy around Disabled Models, by zbeck is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported license.