Is Vogue in Braille the Answer to Fashion’s Inaccessibility?
Written by Nina Maria
Fashion, as an industry, is notorious for being inaccessible. Whether that is financially, socially, culturally or in terms of accepting disabled people – you have to jump through a million loopholes in order to be welcomed at the table. However, fashion portrays itself in magazines and polished influencer feeds, to be inclusive. Now, fashion editorials are broader in terms of casting and message – but is this woke strategy genuine or just superficial?
In the aftermath of 2020, British Vogue, one of the most influential fashion magazines worldwide, has established a reputation to be more inclusive than others. Under the creative lead of Edward Enninful, the publication tried to push fashion forward in a more meaningful way.
More recently, the magazine published a disability issue, championing disabled people in the industry. On the cover, it featured 19 disabled talents, who are making an impact in the industry. For Vogue, who didn’t use a black photographer until 2018, this is groundbreaking. For other publications, such as Dazed, who champion talent across all classes, races and abilities, this is an integral part of their brands. It is special for Vogue because their branding is still very much focussed on reaching members of the white middle and upper classes.
When the publication announced the issue on Instagram, this post was the first one on the account that had accessible audio descriptions and an issue available in Braille.
After the disability issue, Vogue launched an issue about Miley Cyrus and her new album. Subsequently, the audio descriptions disappeared, only appearing at posts that are meant to have a wider reach, such as the Vogue World promotion.
“I think it was an important move towards the inclusion of not only disabled folks as models, but disabled folks as creatives and about conversations of access within the fashion industry,” says Ben Barry, the dean of the School of Fashion at Parsons in New York, and disability and inclusion advocate.
“I have an issue with the disability issue as a concept. For me, it is performatively tokenised – a one-off issue where you put disabled people on the cover, because it is about disability,” says Maddy Reid, the Deputy Editor of Bricks Magazine. As a member of the disabled community within the industry, she had the feeling that there could be potential for something really interesting, more than just a tokenised moment. With Edward having impacted eyesight, a Braille issue felt like a natural product at first. When the issue came out, Edward wrote on Instagram how delighted he is about the Braille issue, but equally, he is aware that the Vogue team and the industry still have a great deal of work to do.
It feels like disabled people are only allowed to speak when it is about their disabilities and their struggles. The sensation-seeking culture of modern media tends to reduce them to that, unfortunately. A similar phenomenon happens when it is about people who belong to other marginalised identities – they are only invited when it is about their struggle, their trauma and the subsequent exclusion they are facing. This issue somewhat feels like a performative effort of the Vogue brand to appear more inclusive, which has happened more and more since 2020, when the New York Times published a long read on Anna Wintour’s racism.
“Why are we not having more conversations about clothing and accessibility?”, asks Maddy. “Why are we not having more conversations about the fact that this industry has the most disgusting culture of late-night alcohol-fuelled networking, which is super inaccessible? If you want to talk about disability issues, there is so much more to talk about than just visual representation,” she adds.
Maddie is touching on an important point, recalling countless product launches, dinners, shows and afterparties industry people are invited to. Usually, those take place in even more inaccessible locations, from a top-floor penthouse apartment in London to a dingy basement floor in Brooklyn. Usually, no invite ever declares the accessibility of a venue.
Vogue did work with Sinead Burke on the consulting side – a fact that both Ben and Maddy underline in the conversations. For Ben, there was an effort: “I see that there was a genuine effort and a partnership to learn and develop. For me, whether there is a real partnership within the community, when there is a redistribution of funds to other organisations and communities – that signals a genuine effort to want to learn and make a change.”
It seems that there might be some things happening behind the scenes, things that we as the reader won’t know about for a while. Generally, it feels as if inclusivity has become a buzzword, similar to greenwashing – only time will tell whether this was genuine or an act of performance.