9 March 2009
Photography's relationship to disability has a long history. Diane Arbus' work - whilst pioneering for the time in which it was made, still somewhat objectifies the figures she captures as they lurk at the margins of society.
Much more recently, Kevin Connolly's The Rolling Exhibition has inverted the camera lens so as to point it back towards the starer. Born without legs, Connolly has spent the last few years moving amongst people around the world on his skateboard, capturing stares, glances and 'neck-twisting ogles' with his camera.
His work acknowledges that the stare is an essential part of human nature, rooted in curiosity, and explores the cultural variations of this commonality that we all, to some degree, share.
This 'instant of unabashed curiosity' is something also present in the world of fashion; where striking images and atypical presentation are used to capture the attention for commercial purposes.
So why the drought of disabled models in fashion? Perhaps unsurprisingly, as shown by The Independent write-up of an Italian fashion show in 2000, there's plenty of prejudice floating around amongst the big name designers.
As with most prejudice, a variety of causes are probably lurking beneath it's abhorrent surface, not least of which is an ongoing regard for disabled people as sexless bodies; bodies worthy of pity, understanding and (sometimes) opportunity but definitely not portrayal as objects of desire.
Visible disability has long been opposed to beauty, going back at least as far as Tod Browning's unique film Freaks (1932) which an assortment of disabled people mutilate a beauty queen who has tried to kill her husband.
And yet, despite this apparent opposition, both fashion and corrective attitudes towards disability work towards a singular image of body perfection. Rosemarie Garland-Thompson - in her article Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory - comments on the near identical purpose between restorative and cosmetic surgery as well as the similarity in function of braces and corsets.
There are exceptions, Alexander McQueen used athlete, actress and double leg amputee Aimee Mullins in his 1998 photo shoot for Dazed and Confused magazine (as well as using Mullins and other disabled models for catwalk shows) and there was also the BBC's Britain's Top Missing Model shown in 2008.
Both these instances stayed well within the conventional frame of high fashion though; all the models in question were tall, long-limbed, fair-skinned and athletic. There was little question of disability being used to confront the viewer's core expectations of a fashion shoot.
Designer Gary Harvey's recent shoot with Mencap and the photography of Larry Dunstan have made use of a much bolder selection of models - both challenge the beauty stereotypes more forcibly whilst continuing to present a stylish image and, particularly in the case of Dunstan's work, one ripe with sexuality.
Unlike FemaleFirst, I suspect that there's room for both these approaches to integrating disability within the fashion imagery. Both that which confronts the stereotypes full on and that which goes for a more subtle change are working towards the same goal, just approaching it in different ways.
There is at least as much prejudice against disabled people working in fashion as in other areas, and probably a lot more. To hold someone up as making a less valid political contribution because they have an invisible disability seems foolish. The issues at stake are not either/or (unlike in the context of the BBC program where there could be only one winner), there's room for both approaches.
Nevertheless, in all these examples, it is a case of one off presentation, rather than a career being forged. There is yet to be someone who does for disability fashion what Naomi Campbell did for black modelling or Sophie Dahl did for plus-size style (in the days before she lost a lot of weight). It might be too early to judge but even Kelly Knox, who comes closest to such a position by virtue of winning Britain's Top Missing Model, hasn't exactly been high profile in the time since.
Nevertheless, it is probably only a matter of time before such a figure does spring forward. And as with Naomi Campbell and Sophie Dahl it won't be because of charity or political awareness that such a figure arises, simply the operation of market forces within the world of fashion. The need for bold arresting images, to get headlines, to be noticed amongst the proliferation of generic images of beauty; these will be the driving factors.
In recent years, the disability movement has also been making fashion statements; forging identities through assertions of sexuality and staking claims to its own brand of style.
As well as the Italian show mentioned above, there has been the birth of Louisa Summerfield's WheelieChix Chic as well as 2001's 'adorn, equip' show at Leicester's City Gallery.
The latter, an exhibition of works where design was emphasised over utilitarian purposes, included Jo Lang's brace for Ju Gosling (the styling of which led a stallholder at Kensington Market to desire it for purely aesthetic reasons, not realising the pragmatic purpose for which it had also been designed) and the amiable but challenging 'Short-armed and dangerous' T-shirt that Freddie Robins designed for Mat Fraser.
An extension of mainstream fashion, such pieces maintain a strong political voice whilst being both stylish and attractive.
Researching this article, it has become clear that the presence of disability within fashion has shown a sharp increase over the last ten years, though perhaps because of the previously created beauty / disability dichotomy this integration is yet to maintain an ongoing momentum.
Currently it seems too much for the majority to idealise disability as a form of beauty; especially in the sense of the unattainably perfect beauty with which fashion presents us. For disability to be any kind of perfection is beyond the grasp of most people. The tragic irony is that the perfect beauty of the fashion industry is actually disabling models in massive numbers. In 2007, the British Fashion Council's own Model Health Inquiry estimated that between 20-40% of models have an eating disorder.
For better or worse, it seems inevitable that disability will gain a more forceful presence within fashion, and though it may be double-sided, this could be a potentially very useful tool.
In the same article mentioned above, Garland-Thompson notes that the omnipresence of fashion and commercial imagery is one of the most powerful tools for shaping public consciousness, simply by virtue of its utterly pervasive presence. To be incorporated into such imagery would provide the strongest challenge yet to what has previously been the prevalent representation of disability - images which demand pity or an objectifying stare.