More loose thoughts on fashion education

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Dear fashion friends,

Is it just me or have we all been living in a sort of weird time capsule lately? I went back to see where we’d left as I started to write this update and realized that it’s only been two months. In my mind it was much longer than that. 🤯 But life has been so intense that it took me a moment to remember that I had written an update before embarking on my first research trip as a London-based fashion historian. And I’m definitely still trying to process everything that has happened since—research trip included.

But it’s not the passage of time that I want to write about today, although that certainly is a very relevant theme when it comes to fashion and “decolonizing” it.

Instead, I want to talk about fashion education. (Again.)

If you follow me on Instagram, you may have seen that I’ve spent quite a lot of time reflecting on my teaching. Some days I feel like I’ve totally failed my students and, when I manage to mention at least one of the things that I believe truly matters, I feel slightly more hopeful. Sometimes I feel frustrated because I think students don’t care enough about fashion history. And other days my heart just bursts with pride when I hear them engage in thoughtful discussions that challenge the Eurocentric canon of fashion, even when I’m not trying to push strongly for it.

These reflections have pushed me to think about fashion education more broadly and about my place within fashion education at a global level.

Without trying to overburden myself with heroic responsibilities, as a Latina in British academia, I do think that it is my responsibility to reframe how we teach fashion and its history, even—or perhaps especially—here in one of its hegemonic centers.

This mission felt easier to achieve when I was teaching in Colombia: I could simply ground everything I taught about fashion history and theory in Latin America. Even the fact of teaching in Spanish a subject that has been developed mostly in English and French was already revolutionary in a way.

But it’s quite different when you’re teaching mostly British students in the heart of England.

Can you get away with discarding the hegemonic history of fashion that glorifies England as its main center of production? Probably not. Can you simply ignore the many contributions of “non-Western” cultures to Euro-North American fashion? Definitely not. And how do you fit it all in teaching terms that are becoming shorter and shorter—along with the attention spans of many students? I’m still trying to figure that out.

But there seem to be a few things that we can do. (Or at least that’s what I’m trying to convince myself of.)

In my fashion film course, I tried to introduce as many non-canonical images as I could from the very first lesson. So as I introduced students to the basics of visual analysis, I made sure to bring images by Kent Monkman, Yinka Shonibare, and Angel Añazco rather than the usual paintings that they’re already familiar with. When introducing sculpture portraits, I selected some created by Assyrian and Moche artists rather than your classical Roman examples. We also dedicated an entire seminar session to think about Afrofuturism and what I call “Inkafuturism” in cinema, music videos, and fashion film.

In my fashion history course I tried to make as evident as possible that colonial expansion and imperialism were the source for much of the development of fashion in the 18th and 19th centuries. The role of enslavement in the production of fashion and the ongoing unequal labor relations within the contemporary fashion industry have also been part of our ongoing discussions.

There are, of course, many other things I could have done differently. For example, I could have started our overview of fashion history not with Georgian court fashions in England but with the textile primacy of the Andes. Or I could have introduced fashion technologies with printed cotton textile production in India rather than starting from England and expanding “away” to its Empire overseas.

But today is one of those days in which I’m choosing to focus on the little steps that I’ve managed to take. I plan to spend part of my summer developing a more comprehensive toolkit for decolonizing fashion education, which I will of course share when it’s ready. And next year I hope to be able to implement some further changes so that, little by little, I can help reshape fashion (history) education.

There used to be a time when I had my favorite words on fashion education, by Dr Ben Barry (quoted here) written on a sticky note I pasted on my work desktop. I had to see it every single morning as I came into my office and was reminded of the real purpose of fashion education every time I went to teach. My office setting has changed much since, but maybe I should find a place for that quote in my physical space. There is something about seeing the words that makes you remember their meaning more easily. And, by seeing them more often, I hope I can find ways to transform more of my internal reflections into tangible strategies to reframe—dare I say decolonize—fashion education as we know it today.

For now, I’ve created a mini resource list that you are welcome to download here. You might also hear more of my musings on fashion education (and hopefully some exciting interviews) in my podcast, Redressing Fashion, now that I finally have some brainwidth to start recording again.

Speaking of the podcast, please listen to my interview with Faith Cooper, which I didn’t get to publicize as much as she deserves. Faith has inspired a lot of what I do on the internet and she is one of my role models when it comes to expanding fashion history narratives through open-access education and social media.

Finally, and because I really think that we cannot decolonize fashion without more safe spaces for conversation, I have decided to reopen my book club and Patreon. Please consider joining if you want to become part of a community that cares deeply about fashion, fashion history, and their potential for creating a better world.

As always, thank you, thank you for reading and following along in my intellectual adventures! Don’t hesitate to email me or message me on social media with any comments, questions, or ideas.

Until next time,

—L 🩷

PS. Remember you can subscribe to my email list to receive blog updates directly to your inbox.

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