Until recently, adaptive fashion — specially designed clothing for people who have difficulty dressing themselves — has been little more than a legend in the disabled community. Thanks to fashion content creators like April Lockhart, however, conversations surrounding the need for accessible fashion have transcended the hypothetical realm of “maybe someday.” In making their voices heard, Lockhart and her fellow disabled fashion influencers have laid the groundwork for an adaptive fashion revolution.
A self-described “disabled fashion girlie,” Lockhart, who was born with amniotic band syndrome, has spent nearly two years fostering an online community for disabled people to share their stories in the context of fashion. “Disabilities are so different within the sphere of the disabled community,” Lockhart tells POPSUGAR. “My disability can be so vastly different than someone else’s, which is cool because we can relate on the common ground that we share something different. But also, I can learn so much about what they’re going through; they can learn what I’m going through.”
“Now, in general, I’m very open and comfortable with my hand and my body.”
After years of hiding her limb difference from her followers, Lockhart challenged herself to step outside of her comfort zone. In January 2022, she started her series “Normalizing Disabled Fashion Girlies,” which aimed to promote disability pride through a fashion lens.
“[It] sort of stemmed out of this personal itch I’d been having for a while,” she says. “I was born with a limb difference; I don’t have my fully formed left hand, and [the series] was kind of birthed out of New Year’s resolutions.” For many social media users who came across her content, simply seeing someone with a disability in the fashion space was new. Still, the comments Lockhart received were overwhelmingly positive. “Now, in general, I’m very open and comfortable with my hand and my body,” she adds.
Since launching that series, Lockhart’s social media platform has become a safe space for conversations about disability pride. She continues, “That kind of launched me into a new season of life and confidence in general, and it’s been a cool journey for me to be on. I’m sure that anybody can relate to the fact that self-esteem is such a journey and we go through waves of feeling comfortable with ourselves and then feeling like we’re starting all over again. I think that’s just being human.”
Personally, the connections Lockhart has made as a result of her online candor have been invaluable. Professionally, her platform has given her opportunities to influence the scope of adaptive fashion, a long-term objective she’s eager to see through.
While adaptive clothing does exist in niche retail spaces, function largely takes precedence over fashion. For avid shoppers in the disabled community — for whom little beats the thrill of securing a sleek, new pair of Doc Martens or the perfect pair of denim — the joy of finding a sartorial treasure can often be spoiled if the pieces they’re searching for aren’t adaptive. Of course, for some, there are a few workarounds. “I, at the end of the day, will always go for fashion over function,” Lockhart says. “I will figure out a way; I will make my husband button the dress for me if it’s the dress I want; I will find a way to wear it.”
“I think some of the swaps are easier than people think, and then you’re not sacrificing the style.”
Lockhart’s TikTok and Instagram videos support this resolve for style. In between takes of herself trying on kaleidoscopic dresses or thrifted sweaters, her husband’s hands occasionally pop into the frame to assist with a zipper or an inconveniently placed clasp. Some people, though, require varying levels of assistance to get dressed, which is where adaptive clothing comes into play.
Adaptive clothing is not a new concept. For decades, specialized brands have created clothing with more accessible features: velcro closures instead of buttons, magnetic closures, tagless clothing, one-handed zippers, shoes without laces, and pieces made from sensitive fabrics. But while adaptive clothing like this can be tracked down, it’s not readily available at mainstream retailers. This means many people in the disabled community do not have access to this clothing, and those that do have strong feelings about the medical look and feel of the garments.
“I would love to be in the rooms [with designers], trying things on and saying, ‘This doesn’t really work,’ or ‘This does work,’ or ‘This makes my life a lot easier,'” Lockhart says of developing clothing that is both functional and fashionable. “I think the thing that most of the disabled community can resonate with, too, is we’ve figured things out over the years on our own for sure, but there are definitely ways to make things a lot easier.”
Though brands have had decades to reshape their sales models to be more intentionally inclusive of the disabled community, little progress has been made. Some notable brands — including Tommy Hilfiger Adaptive, UGG and Zappos Adaptive, Aerie, and Skims — have made strides in the adaptive fashion industry, but, as Lockhart points out, “there’s always room for improvement.”
“There’s a huge part of the disabled community that loves fashion,” says Lockhart, who made her runway debut while wearing Victoria’s Secret at Runway of Dreams during New York Fashion Week this September. “I think some of the swaps are easier than people think, and then you’re not sacrificing the style.”
In terms of immediate next steps, Lockhart hopes to see more big-name fashion brands adopt a business model that considers disabled people in every aspect of product development. By naturally integrating disabled models in marketing ads and runway shows, retailers can take the first step to becoming part of the adaptive fashion conversation. Additionally, Lockhart says, clothing brands can provide adaptive alternatives to existing staple pieces and release capsule collections made in smaller quantities to meet the needs of their disabled shoppers.
“They can take pieces that we’re all wearing anyway and find ways to make easy, adaptive swaps,” Lockhart says. “I would love to see brands put the effort into it, and I think I’m seeing a few brands start to have those conversations behind the scenes. Maybe it’s six months or a year from now, but I think we’ll start to see it more.”