One aspect I am focusing on in my PhD thesis is the use of disability imagery in the fashion world. I use the term “disability imagery” rather than “disabled models” because, as the examples I will discuss in this post show, the representation of disability in fashion magazines tends to fall in to two categories: the inclusion of disabled people as models, or the appropriation of disability.
This appropriation of physical disability can be seen in the following images from an editorial in the February 1995 edition of Vogue, titled “High and Mighty”:
I’m interested in these images for a number of reasons. What does the use of orthopaedic and mobility equipment in this way say about the fashion industry’s treatment and representation of disabled bodies? As one blogger pointed out, the editorial was “largely seen as offensive”, because of it’s “shocking” and “politically incorrect” imagery. But why was it deemed offensive? Was it because of it’s brazen depiction of disability, so often hidden away?
My main issue with the editorial (and a similar shoot from i-D magazine in 2010, see above link) is that it reinforces the notion that disability is something that is in itself shocking. The idea behind the Vogue editorial is that the fashionable shoes for that season are so high that you won’t be able to walk in them, therefore you need to use crutches or a wheelchair (aided of course by some handsome and well-dressed men). Well…okay then. I don’t find the imagery itself particularly problematic. What is frustrating about it is the high probability that the director and photographer behind the shoot knew that there would be a strong reaction to it. Disability is again being used as shorthand for shock and bad-taste.
Part of the “shock” value of the editorial is that it shows a model’s body, a perfect body (as the bodies of models are usually regarded) as somehow imperfect. It is a transgression of what we are expected to find beautiful and attractive with that of the sort of body we’re supposed to find repellent (if we consider it at all).
But the fact is that the model featured in the shoot is not actually disabled and can probably walk perfectly well in the shoes (as a professional model, I would presume so anyway). She is merely dressing up, the disability isn’t real and so the audience does not have to deal with the societally-ingrained anxiety and fear that emerges when faced with real-life disabled bodies.
As I have discussed in a previous post, disabled models such as Aimee Mullins do exist, and the ways they are represented goes some way to challenge the normative ideas of what is seen as beautiful. It can also be argued that some of the imagery of Mullins and other disabled models is itself provocative. However, the difference is that any provocation which comes with the use of models like Mullins isn’t merely a game of dress-up, shock for the sake of shock. Real disabled people don’t have the option of taking off the costume when the shoot is over, but do have to deal with the consequences of imagery which positions their bodies as shocking, strange and undesirable.