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At 3 foot 5 inches tall, Sinéad Burke says she is accustomed to design impinging on her dignity — from too-high locks on bathroom stalls to fashions that fail to accommodate her dimensions. Still, she says in a new interview with the Guardian, “I’m very fortunate to have a wardrobe full of beautiful, well-made clothes. Not just from Burberry, but Gucci, Prada, Ferragamo, Christopher Kane.”
As the eldest of five children, but the only sibling with achondroplasia, the most common form of restricted growth, Burke grew up “envious of my sisters, who were average height. They had access to what I saw as the entirety of the fashion industry, even though they had far less interest than I did.” And now? “They look at my wardrobe and are like: ‘Would that fit me?’” she says with a laugh.
Burke was interviewed at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, where a groundbreaking exhibition to celebrate diversity in fashion will feature two pieces from her wardrobe — an exercise that required the creation of the world’s first mannequin of a little person, modeled on her own body.
Some people will recognize Burke from her brilliant 2017 TED talk ‘Why design should include everyone,’ which led to her inclusion on Vogue’s 2018 list of the 25 most powerful women working in Britain, an appointment to Ireland’s council of state, and an invitation to this year’s Met Gala — the first little person ever to attend the coveted fundraising event.
Burke says she was drawn to fashion from childhood precisely because she felt excluded by it. “I understood that the fashion industry had power and that access to better clothes would alleviate some of the challenges I experienced. I use clothes like armor. If I’m walking down the street in a jumpsuit with caped sleeves and loafers, you probably won’t think I’m a lost child who needs help finding their parent. Despite it being seen as an exclusive industry, I see fashion as something that unites us.”
“Design is a way in which we can feel included in the world, but it is also a way in which we can uphold a person’s dignity and their human rights,” she told the audience at TED NYC. “Design can also inflict vulnerability on a group whose needs aren’t considered.”
The former elementary school teacher also recently penned an opinion piece for Vogue before embarking on a speaking tour in the schools of north-east Dublin, after being the victim of a hate crime there, perpetrated by teenagers. It’s tiring work, but her commitment to education remains strong. “If you are in any way diverse, there is a sense that it’s your responsibility to educate the majority,” she reflects. “That’s not fair or true. I choose to do this, and I choose it for now.”
Watch Sinéad Burke’s 2017 TED talk below, ‘Why design should include everyone’:
Read the full story at The Guardian.