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‘High Time for High Fashion to have Found Us’

Vogue Editor-in-Chief Edward Enninful understands we have to go beyond stunning photography and glorious clothes – and push for further discussion around the disability narrative, writes Penny Pepper

The May 2023 cover of British Vogue. Photo: British Vogue

High Time for High Fashion to have Found Us

Vogue Editor-in-Chief Edward Enninful understands we have to go beyond stunning photography and glorious clothes – and push for further discussion around the disability narrative, writes Penny Pepper

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It may surprise readers to know that I watched an hour of the Coronation while wearing my ‘not my king’ badge. How could I stomach it? The day before, I rewrote the words to the Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’ – but I am, of course, interested in understanding what drives people to do what they do.

I was intrigued to see a wheelchair user in the front row of the Abbey, swathed in bright yellow dress. This interested me, as did, I admit sheepishly, the display of clothes. More on that later. 

I saw a few more wheelchair users in the hour of torment, and imagined Mrs Yellow to be wealthy to be in such a position. She did a turn of the tragic-but-brave-model by standing up as Charlie boy shuffled past. There was a tinge of sadness inside my opprobrium. Why did she feel she had to do that? Was she a lesser human being if she couldn’t? What does that say about how we see wheelchair users?

I know I have friends who are unconcerned with the deeper hypocrisies of the Royal Family, who would gladly go to a street party for some cake. As for me, I’m glad it’s over, and find much of the monarchy and its institutions sickening and inappropriate for our times.

I met Lord Snowden once – a sort-of royal. He was the Queen’s brother-in-law for 18 years and a trustee for the National Fund for Research into Crippling Diseases (now Action Medical Research). He handed out awards – and cheques – for something once called Action for the Crippled Child.

I was given the dosh to get a power chair, which in those days, wasn’t available on the NHS. There was a big bash at some posh London guildhall. What’s left of that day is an embarrassing photo I gave to my auntie, of me in a white frilly cottagecore dress, inappropriately low on the cleavage and counterpointed with punk jewellery. When Snowden shook my hand, with my other I prevented a breast incident.

He was perhaps used to it, as he was a photographer with portraits in many fashionable magazines, including Vogue.

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This brings me to a confession: I obsessed a little over the clothes despite myself, sometimes laughing at their monstrosity, sometimes with a begrudging admiration. A well-tailored dress is a well-tailored dress, and I even had a brief lapse, a nanosecond of admiration for Penny Mordaunt, in a Tudor-ish-style headband hat number.

Typical Tory though, the sword she held – groaning with jewels most likely from a hundred oppressed and colonised nations – didn’t tempt her to give Charlie a tickle with it! She was just as ineffective as the Minister for Disabled People in 2016-2017 – so much so that I’d forgotten about her, although she showed the classic Tory approach to us scroungers by ‘quietly blocking PIP benefit payments’ in 2017.

Remembering this, clothes notwithstanding, and seeing the smug, repellent face of Prince Andrew at the ceremony, I turned the telly off.

Yet, on the topic of clothes, during my recovery from COVID I found consolation in buying 15 dresses. I like the hunt for a bargain; the unusual; the hopefully ethically-made and not ridiculously overpriced – unlikely most of the outfits on display in Westminster Abbey.

While the high end of costly fashion is central as always in Vogue, its May issue – ‘Reframing Fashion: Dynamic, Daring and Disabled’ – brought me much to love. Why not feel a celebratory thrill to see disabled people on the front cover of such an iconic fashion institution? Lead model, Sinéad Burke, is such a dynamic voice and fearless game-changer. From the depths of my girly-girl heart, I adore seeing her in those “black pointy pumps by Ferragamo and a dress and belt by Alexander McQueen”.

Sinéad – writer, academic and activist who founded accessibility and inclusion consultancy Tilting the Lens – pins down so many important points regarding what should be the true nature of diversity and inclusivity. 

It crushes the soul when the word ‘diversity’ is blazoned, only to discover they don’t mean me, us, the disabled community, making up the biggest minority group in the country. I hope with all my heart that young disabled people will see these portraits – featuring, among others, a barrister, a designer team, a dancer and a racing driver – and feel elated at these role models demonstrating what is possible, and what can truly change.

Sinéad and Vogue Editor-in-Chief Edward Enninful get it – in terms of understanding that we have to go beyond the stunning photography, and the glorious clothes, and push the barriers for further discussion around the disability narrative, particularly within this realm of high-end fashion. It’s a section of popular culture that is the last to move on in accepting and celebrating more of the human family.

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Enninful’s words further my hope and deserve repeating: “Dynamism of spirit, of talent, of imagination, is what the stars of this issue have in spades. It is this quality that the industry… must also lean into if it is to better serve the disabled community, alongside the disabled community; with jobs, in the design of retail spaces, of photography studios, of digital interfaces, events, communications and, of course, clothes.”

Sinéad Burke also highlights this important and crucial understanding of genuine inclusion: “British Vogue creates a call to action for the much-needed change in other parts of the fashion industry, and beyond. Accessibility and disability inclusion are everyone’s responsibility and opportunity – this is a movement, not a moment.”

I’ll never buy a Gucci dress on principle, representing as it does the obscenities of capitalism, but I do like to know that there is an equity for those that would – which includes disabled people.

I hope wheelchair user Mrs Yellow enjoyed herself at the Coronation, and like to think that perhaps she is even some kind of role model – I remember times, even within family weddings, when the disabled person was expected to be kept out of sight. 

Ultimately, much of what I found nauseating about the Coronation debacle was summed up well by columnist Andrew Tickell. It was “one of the most deeply strange events this ­country has seen in ­decades… toy soldiers, ­mediaeval hokum, unbelieved Christianity – and ­authoritarian policing… a deeply boring and at points deeply uncomfortable ritual”.

I know I won’t see its like again – and I’m glad. Bring me a dress from a local maker any day, and I’ll show you a true ritual of happy fashion.

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