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Story | 04 May 2020

More than an outfit

Words: Annabel Rose | Illustrations: Kate Wilson

We explore the growing availability of inclusive clothing, the difference it’s making to people’s lives, and how it’s helping them to be themselves

An illustration of four people in different poses showing off their outfits. One person is holding a sewing needle and thread

Anyone who’s ever felt a little bolder in a new coat or acted a little sillier wearing fancy dress knows the clothes we wear can affect how we feel and behave. Here, we explore the growing availability of inclusive clothing, the difference it’s making to people’s lives, and how it’s helping them to be themselves.

Please be aware that this article contains discussion about self-harm scars.

Most of us know that the clothes we wear can affect the way we feel. Sometimes it’s simple. An itchy jumper may make someone feel irritable, or a pair of too-tight trousers may put someone off joining in with a spontaneous dance party.

In 2014, the idea of inclusive clothing made headlines as attention turned to the links between girls’ participation in PE and the kits they were expected to wear. One study found that over a quarter of girls avoided sport because of the kit, and Jennie Price, head of Sport England, said they should be allowed to wear more comfortable clothes. Now, many anecdotal reports suggest that relaxing the rules (and involving young people in designing their kit) improves participation.

Of course, sometimes it goes deeper than comfort. Sometimes clothes affect our thinking. Studies have found that wearing large hoods and capes made people more likely to give others electric shocks, and wearing a bikini made women feel ashamed, eat less, and perform worse at maths.

Two psychologists, Hajo Adam and Adam Galinsky, decided to investigate whether clothes really have power over how people see themselves and behave. They suggested a phenomenon called ‘enclothed cognition’ to explain how wearing clothes with symbolic meanings changes how we think and behave.

They did a series of experiments involving attention tests and white lab coats. In one, they found that people wearing lab coats made around half as many errors as those wearing their everyday clothes. In another, they told some people that the coats were ‘doctor’ coats and told others they were ‘artistic painter’ coats. Those wearing ‘doctor’ coats performed better than those wearing ‘artistic painter’ coats. The clothes people wore (and what they symbolised and meant to them) affected how they thought and performed. 

Clothes are important. They’re not just about looking good: they can affect how people feel, how they see themselves, and how they act. Over the past few years, we’ve started to understand that the same clothes don’t work for everyone. People with sensory sensitivities, people who are physically disabled or have scars, and plus-sized people all need options that work for them. Thankfully, there are more options than ever – and it’s making a real difference to people’s lives.

Sensory sensitivities

We use our senses to gather information about the world. People who struggle with sensory processing (for example, many autistic people) may be more or less sensitive to things that others don’t think twice about, like finding perfume overwhelming or preferring strong-tasting foods. When it comes to clothes, there’s plenty to consider.

Josefina Troncoso is an autistic artist and youth patron for the charity Ambitious About Autism. Clothes that work for her include ‘fabrics that feel unusually soft, and loose clothing’.

Other things, including tight clothing, clothing with a lot of seams on the inside, and clothing made from stiff fabrics are a total non-starter for her.

Josefina says it’s very common for autistic people to have specific clothing requirements. Some are common (like disliking seams inside clothes), but not everyone’s preferences are the same.

‘Some people can’t stand the feeling of velvet, whereas I love it – as long as it doesn’t have a viscose lining,’ explains Josefina.

Things become difficult when people don’t have as much choice in what they wear. Josefina had to wear a school uniform; she hated the formal version as it ‘felt very constraining’.

At the time, she didn’t have the knowledge or vocabulary about autism to understand what was going on. ‘I think I just assumed it was meant to be uncomfortable,’ she says.

It’s not just about discomfort – often, ‘the general public don’t understand how clothing affects autistic people,’ Josefina says. ‘Sometimes it feels flat out painful. I can’t help thinking about it even when I try to distract myself.’

As well as affecting our wellbeing and mental health, clothes can prevent people getting on with everyday things, like education. Josefina says that clothes ‘absolutely’ affect her ability to get on with day-to-day tasks.

‘I can’t even sit still,’ she explains. ‘If I’m at home, I have to spring back into my room to get changed.’

What about when clothes do work?

‘I think I feel more normal? Happier?’ Josefina ponders. ‘Sometimes with particularly “me” items of clothing, especially when they’re new, I get like a weird rush of happiness.

‘It’s nice (and almost novel) to feel really comfortable, even though nobody decides what kind of clothing I wear any more. I feel really grateful for clothes that work for me.’

Physical disability

Some disabled people can buy clothes from any shop, but others struggle to find stuff that’s been designed with bodies like theirs in mind. Motivated by morals and profit, brands (including M&S, Seasalt and Nike) are responding to the demand for adaptive fashion, but small businesses were ahead of the trend.

Sibling team Jess and Dom set up Willow Bug because it was difficult to find clothes that worked for Jess’ daughter, Willow, who has SMA (a condition that causes muscle weakness). When you spend your whole day sitting, zips, waistbands, seams and even small creases become really irritating and trousers can ride down at the back. Willow Bug’s school trousers have a soft, zip-free waistband and they’re higher at the back too.

Winter coats were another big issue for Willow. ‘It was a huge struggle to get Willow’s arms into the sleeves,’ explains Jess. ‘Once the coat was on, it was too bulky and made it difficult for her to drive her wheelchair’.

Willow Bug’s coats are shorter and less padded and have Velcro at the back – Willow slides her arms in and Jess fastens it. It’s made a huge difference for Willow. Before, when it was cold, Willow never wanted to go out, but, with the coat, last year she could finally enjoy a snowball fight with her brother.

Willow Bug are making things easier for other people, too. ‘I know how much the clothing’s changed mine and Willow’s lives,’ says Jess. ‘To hear others are benefiting too is great.’


According to The Children’s Society, one in six young people have self-harmed in the last year. Not all self-harm causes scars (and not all scars are from self-harm), but some people choose clothes to cover scars.

Gray Crosbie is a contributor for the BBC’s The Social, a digital platform that develops young talent. They shared Gray’s poem ‘Covering Scars With Summer Jumpers’ last year. ‘When I was younger, I used to cover my scars all the time,’ Gray explains.

‘It was a bit of a nightmare, especially when it was warm.’ It also stopped them joining in, for example, with swimming. Self-harm ‘wasn’t something I could talk about’ says Gray. ‘It was something I had to hide’.

Self-harm isn’t shameful but whether scars are days or years old, ‘It’s hard, because so much of your history is there,’ Gray explains. ‘It can be quite scary knowing that people can see I have a history of self-harm; you feel quite vulnerable.’

There are things everyone can do to make it easier for people with self-harm scars. Avoid asking insensitive questions and, ‘If you notice someone else asking an inappropriate question, say so, and check the person with scars is OK,’ suggests Gray. People can also ‘actively practise not staring’.

With time and welcoming environments, some people feel comfortable showing their scars. ‘It was a very long process’, says Gray. ‘I still feel like I’m going through it sometimes’. At first, their decision ‘was almost a protest’ Gray explains. ‘People might find it uncomfortable, but this is my body, this is what I have to put up with, this is just how it is.’

Ultimately, it’s about choice. ‘If people feel uncomfortable having their scars out, there should be options to keep them covered,’ says Gray. Equally, ‘If you feel happy with your skin and your scars, you should be able to wear your skin and feel OK. It’s your body, and it’s whatever you feel most comfortable with.’

Whether they’re keeping them covered for work or wearing short sleeves in the summer, choice means that Gray can go about ‘not even considering’ their scars, and ‘that’s a much nicer place to be’.


Size differences between shops can be frustrating, but many of us take for granted that we’ll be able to find something that fits – a luxury that people with bigger bodies don’t have.

Hollie Burgess (better known as HolliePlus) is a plus-size fashion blogger. ‘It’s improved over the past five years,’ she says. ‘Before, it was really hard to find fashionable clothing. There were only basic things – stuff that standard-sized people would just wear around the house.’

Not being able to find clothes that fit ‘makes you feel like there’s something wrong with you,’ she says. As a teenager, it affected her socialising. ‘What’s the point in going clothes shopping, if I can’t do what my friends are doing?’ And when it came to parties, if she couldn’t find nice clothing, she didn’t want to go.

‘As an adult, it seems a bit trivial,’ says Hollie. She’s clear that it’s not about clothes (or appearances) determining self-worth. It’s about being included. Things are getting better, but ‘it comes with limitations’ says Hollie. ‘If I had a wardrobe malfunction today, if my jeans ripped or I spilled coffee, I’m 99% sure I couldn’t go and find an outfit on the high street.’

Comfort zone

Nevertheless, small changes in the industry, such as plus-sized clothes becoming more widely available, are having an impact. ‘It sounds dramatic,’ Hollie says, ‘but it’s changed my life. When you’re big you’re always being told you’re taking up too much space, all these negative things. When you feel OK about how you look, you find confidence. You can be who you are.’

There are still barriers, including cost and choice. The industry has a long way to go to include everybody, but positive changes are showing people they’re valued. ‘It’s really nice,’ Gray says. ‘I remember when I didn’t think this day would ever come.’

Charities such as Mind have lots of information and support. Always follow the Yellow Card and pass on concerns about a young person.

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