Adaptive Fashion Fights Stigmas Among People With Disabilities

By Kellie Ell on October 20, 2020 WWD Lingerie brands like Intimately are creating innerwear for women with disabilities that are both functional and sexy.

Intimately offers lingerie for women with disabilities. Courtesy Photo Intimately Emma Butler wants to see more lingerie options for women with disabilities — like side-opening underwear, magnetic bras and velcro closures — but in fashionable, sexy designs.   That’s why the Rhode Island resident started Intimately, a lingerie e-tailer and blog for women with physical ailments.  “Women with disabilities don’t want to be treated like a medical accessory the way the market currently treats them,” Butler told WWD. “It’s another group of women who are just as beautiful, just as sexy, just as desirable, just as into fashion as anybody else.  Magnetic-closing bras for women with disabilities.  Courtesy Photo “There are millions of women worldwide with some kind of disability that affects the way they dress,” she continued. “Dressing and creating clothing for them — the same way we do for other groups of people — is super important.” 

As many as 61 million adults in the U.S. have a disability, according to 2019 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s about a quarter of the adult population. Of those living with disabilities, about one in four are women, and roughly 3.7 percent have difficulty dressing or bathing by themselves.  Butler’s mother is one of them. Diagnosed with fibromyalgia more than a decade ago, chronic pain made it difficult for her to get dressed and Butler would often have to help her mother put on her clothes. And it only made matters worse that many of the clothing options for people with physical disabilities were simply unattractive.  VIEW GALLERY “My mom described the experience to me as dehumanizing,” Butler said.  While studying at Brown University, Butler started sewing clothes for her mother and some new college friends, many of whom had physical disabilities of their own. Not long after, she started Intimately as a blog curating the best selection of adaptive apparel. The aim was to help women with disabilities find clothes they’d actually want to wear. Tommy Hilfiger, Zappos and Target, plus a number of mom-and-pop shops, had some options. Intimates, however, weren’t part of the mix.  “I started wondering why [brands] weren’t targeting underwear, because that’s the first step to getting ready,” Butler said. Then, with the help of a $20,000 Kickstarter campaign, Intimately became a business last summer. “It’s interesting working with intimates. So much is tied to self-confidence and love and desirability and feeling sexy,” Butler said. “And fashion is a visual language. It’s a way that we express ourselves and present ideas about ourselves.” Side-closing underwear for women with disabilities.  Courtesy Photo Shoppers can find Butler’s curated selection of intimate apparel for women with disabilities (from a variety of name brands) at There’s also a community section where women can share their stories about living with disabilities and, according to Butler, “feel like they’re being included in this narrative about sex and desirability.”  This fall, Butler will release her own label, starting with two adaptive lingerie lines and a sleepwear collection.  “We’re making the pieces super easy for anyone to get on, whether you’re a wheelchair user, an amputee or a chronic illness warrio

r,” Butler said. “But also, we’re not sacrificing fashion. We don’t want there to be ugly, medical-grade, diaper-looking things. Then also, we want to find this point in which it’s affordable, because folks with disabilities typically make less than their able-bodied counterparts.”  Meanwhile, Butler and her team — nine women total, about half of whom have a physical disability — are growing. The entrepreneur is planning on opening Intimately offices in Paris and New York and would like to one day move into ready-to-wear.  “We really want to make sure all women have options,” Butler said.  One constant, however, is Butler’s wish to keep the business direct-to-consumer.  “The thing with online is that we can ship from anywhere and you don’t have to leave your home,” Butler said. “With Amazon [and other potential wholesale partners], women with limited dexterity, they don’t want to get a box they can’t open. So we’ve really curated the whole experience from beginning to end with our easy-to-open boxes.”  Broadway star Ali Stroker is a role model for intimates brand AerieCourtesy Photo Butler’s desire to stay digital represents a greater industry-wide problem: for women with disabilities, fashion fumbles often go beyond aesthetics.  “It’s very difficult, as a disabled person, to walk into a store and find clothing,” said Keely Cat-Wells, a disability rights activist and chief executive officer of C Talent, a Los Angeles-based talent agency for people with disabilities. “It’s difficult to sometimes even get in the door of a store.” As a rep

resentative for people with disabilities — and a former actor and dancer who quit the business because of the discrimination she faced within the entertainment industry as a result of her own disabilities — Cat-Wells described instances where clients have had to change in a storage room on set, because the trailers were not wheelchair accessible. Or, someone with a disability will be asked to play a stereotype, “which is damaging to society,” Cat-Wells said.  “It just reinforces the notion that people with disabilities are either a burden; or they’re angry at the world; or that they need constant care,” she said. “When you Google disabilities and clothing, a lot of times you come up with bright colors and velcro, little things that are catered toward your typical stereotype of disability. It’s not catered toward people who actually want to feel confident and sexy and wear the clothes that are in mainstream stores. “I think major companies understand that one size does not fit all. But I don’t think they understand that one design does not fit all,” Cat-Wells continued. “Like clothing labels are not great for people with autism. People who use a wheelchair are in a seated position, so they need pants that are more high-rise than normal pants. And maybe little people want to wear trench coats, but they have a bust. So their body is the size of a child, but they don’t have the figure of a child.”  At present, few designers incorporate people with visible disabilities in their marketing materials or fashion shows, despite the growing market. (The adaptive apparel industry, which was valued at nearly $279 billion in 2017, according to analytics and consulting firm Coherent Market Insights, is expected to grow to more than $392 billion by 2026.) Even fewer fashion designers have disabilities of their own.  Runway of Dreams, a nonprofit founded in 2014 by Mindy Scheier, a former stylist at Saks Fifth Avenue, creates events and fashion shows for people with disabilities. In the lingerie space, Rihanna has used models with disabilities in her Savage x Fenty fashion shows. Earlier this year, intimates brand Aerie, owned by American Eagle Outfitters, named