‘Building a suite of pedagogy that seeks to decolonize fashion’ by Kimberly M. Jenkins

As an emerging fashion studies scholar of color, I have sought to advance the field through integrating research and teaching on fashion and race at Parsons School of Design. This has culminated into a suite of pedagogy that seeks to decolonize fashion: an undergraduate and graduate course, an online repository and an exhibition. During my time teaching, I was challenged with finding historical and pedagogical resources that explored fashion history and theory from outside of the Western canon. In addition, I wanted to locate and organize the existing scholarship that investigated how race influenced the aesthetics of fashion and how ‘fashionability’ presented limitations to citizenship and belonging. In 2015, I began work on developing a course called ‘Fashion and Race’ at Parsons school of Design, and it was accepted as an undergraduate elective in 2016. The impetus for the course was not only about addressing the intersection of power, privilege, representation and aesthetics within the fashion system, it was also about serving the increasingly diverse student demographic at The New School. Aside from navigating our precarious political landscape, some students of color lament the fact that their research or design ideas are not understood or supported (which requires insight into the lived experiences of these students), and the fashion history that they are taught lacks a diverse perspectives. Yet Parsons is not alone–a vast number of academic institutions are grappling with a deficit in resources and faculty who are underprepared for an ever-changing student demographic. The social problem of systemic racism and the residual effects of colonialism has experienced increased coverage in the media, most notably with the term ‘decolonizing’ making its way into the mainstream. Using the classroom, online media and the gallery space as sites for creative pedagogical practice in fashion, I will explain how I am working to decolonize fashion.

Teaching fashion history and ‘Fashion and Race’

When I developed Fashion and Race at Parsons School of Design, the syllabus aimed to investigate the ways in which fashioned identities emerge within a racialized context in effort to gain access, visibility and power. Incorporating key concepts in fashion studies with foundations in cultural studies, critical race theory, as well as methodologies from disciplines such as sociology, anthropology and art history, students come away with a deeper understanding of the intersection of fashion, race and ethnicity. More importantly, we critically address historical and socially accepted standards of beauty and value within the fashion system, and final projects enable (and encourage) the students to propose innovative fashion futures that implore a more equitable fashion system. For the past four years I have also taught fashion history, and I’ve found it crucial to acknowledge and respond to the diverse, lived experiences of my students in both classes. One way that I have integrated diversity and inclusion into the traditionally Euro-centric fashion history classroom is through a voluntary exercise I’ve called, ‘Our Fashion History.’ During each week that we cover a different era, students are invited to send me a photo or two of how their family dressed during that time. A separate slideshow would be presented at the end of my lecture, with the students taking the floor to introduce classmates to their unique ‘fashion history.’ I’ve carried on this exercise for about three years, and the result has been positive and in some ways invaluable–students from non-Western countries were able to broaden our perspective of ‘fashion’ and ultimately broaden our understanding of fashion history. In my Fashion and Race class, I begin the semester by not only asking why the students have enrolled, but how they would define ‘race’ and what is often mistaken about their identity. The responses often fill up the chalkboard through this cathartic exercise, and we see students teaching other students about their intersectional struggles, developing empathy and sensitivity through conversation.

Classroom responses to how students deal with race.

The Fashion and Race Database

In 2017 I was awarded a small grant through The New School’s Innovation in Education Fund to build an online repository that I called The Fashion and Race Database Project. The impetus for the project was an outgrowth of the Fashion and Race course, where I proposed that it was through a re-assessment and radical revision of the curricula for fashion history, theory and design that a deepened understanding and an expanded vision of fashion history could be established. The primary beneficiaries of this resource would be students, fashion professionals and educators who are not fully equipped to address and teach fashion history and theory outside of the Western lens. At its core, the objective and value of The Fashion and Race Database Project is centered on expanding our cultural and historical memory within fashion and proposing new fashion futures that respond to today’s real world affairs and work to reconcile a partisan history. The first phase of the database was unveiled in October of this year, introducing resources that include: Essays that celebrate pivotal moments of diversity and inclusion in fashion and opinion editorials that address and advocate for equitable representation in fashion; profiles written about notable, racially marginalized figures in fashion; case studies that address race as a power mechanism in the business of fashion–particularly when it comes to retail and employment discrimination, racial profiling, cultural appropriation and a persistent lack of inclusion; brief, encyclopedic entries that identify and define fashion objects or elements of style that respond to mechanisms of power as it is connected to race. In addition, multimedia resources (books, films, etc.) that organize and underscore the research and continued dialogue going on about race, colonialism and systemic oppression and a calendar of events will help center and support minoritized individuals who seek community and professional opportunities.

Curating the exhibition, Fashion and Race

The final node that so far completes my suite of pedagogy that seeks to decolonize fashion is my exhibition, Fashion and Race: Deconstructing Ideas, Reconstructing Identities (October 27–November 11, 2018). On view at the Arnold and Sheila Aronson Gallery at Parsons, the show invited visitors to consider the ways in which race has affected the fashion system through a constellation of work from students harnessing their creativity to transgress the limitations they have been confronted with, deconstructing the very idea of ‘race’ as they endeavor to reconstruct identities of their own.The work in the show was presented in three sections, with select work from students in fashion design, photography, illustration and communication design. The section titled, ‘Deconstructing Ideas, Reconstructing Identities,’ responded to the effects of the pseudoscientific methods that were refined by the 18th and 19th centuries and postulated a biological difference between human beings, with the featured artists confronting the ramifications of race through subtle or overt acts of subversion. The sections ‘The Racialized Body’ and ‘Race and the Gaze in Fashion Photography,’ respectively reconsider the rubric of who can and cannot be considered fashionable, and redirect the gaze. As a result, I urged visitors to consider: How can the next generation of artists reconcile an exclusionary past, imagining futures that radically revise what is possible in fashion, photography, and illustration?

Screenshot from the launch of The Fashion and Race Database Project.

Next year I will introduce a graduate course at Parsons with my frequent collaborator Jonathan Square (Harvard University) called ‘Fashion and Justice.’ The course is a progression of a traveling workshop that we facilitate to educate students, educators and the public about the liberatory potential of dress. I will also continue to develop the Fashion and Race Database Project in hopes that this repository of resources will prioritize and center scholars of color and highlight underrepresented histories, which I believe–at the base level–is imperative in our effort to decolonize fashion.

A visitor encounters a gown and suspended headdress designed by Parsons student Lashun Costor in the exhibition, Fashion and Race: Deconstructing Ideas, Reconstructing Identities.

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