More than a passing trend: Accessibility in the fashion industry

Sinéad Burke speaks to TCDSU and Fashion Soc

Trinity Fashion Society and TCDSU joined forces last night to host a discussion with Sinéad Burke about inclusivity in the fashion industry. Sinéad Burke is a Trinity alum, activist-for-inclusion, academic, British Vogue contributing writer, and has appeared on the cover of The Business of Fashion. She is best known to most people for her 2017 TED Talk Why Design Should Include Everyone which has been viewed over 1.3 million times.

Burke spoke at length about her experiences growing up in Ireland and about the importance of inclusion and representation not only in the fashion industry but in all aspects of society. Burke emphasised the role of the fashion industry in society and referred to its specific importance with regard to inclusivity as it is the only industry “which touches all others” and is one that each and every one of us must interact with to some degree or other. For Burke, “fashion is a microcosm of society at large”. However, she highlighted the lack of representation in both this stylish microcosm itself and also across all aspects of society, drawing attention to the lack of disabled TDs in particular and the fact that sign language was shockingly only registered as an official language in Ireland this past year.

Burke tackled this sensitive and inadequately discussed issue humorously and with great insight, alluding to the general Irish anxiety towards and strict avoidance of any situation in which we might cause offence or awkwardness of any kind. As Burke put it: “For the Irish, shame is attached to every synapsis of the body”. In situations where we are unsure of the correct terminology to be used, people often shy away from engaging in the discussion outright. Yet, it is this kind of conversation and dialogue that is vital in order to dispel the stigma surrounding the topic, while also preventing an erasure of identity and experience.

In order to improve accessibility in the fashion industry, Burke offered a plethora of simple suggestions, such as improved alteration services, the use of Velcro or magnetic strips in place of hard-to-reach and finicky zips, and the circulation of stories of disabled people, but not simply through the lens of ableism. This latter point is visible particularly in the representation of disabled people in a film, where the characters are almost exclusively played by able-bodied actors as a sure fire way of securing themselves an Oscar.

As Burke says in her TED Talk: “Society has evolved, so should our vocabulary”. Undoubtedly, so too should the fashion industry, and the way in which we design and shape the world in which we live. There is a great deal of work to be done but with figures such as Sinéad Burke at the helm, the future of accessible fashion for all looks very hopeful, indeed.