Lauren Downing Peters: An Alumna’s Reflects on the MA Fashion Studies Program

MA Fashion Studies alumni. From left: Lauren Downing Peters '12, Anya Kurennaya '12, Rachel Francois '12, and Nami Kim '12

MA Fashion Studies alumni. From left: Lauren Downing Peters ’12, Anya Kurennaya ’12, Rachel Francois ’12, and Nami Kim ’12

Graduating with the first inaugural MA Fashion Studies class in May 2012, alumna Lauren Downing Peters shares her personal tale of life before, during, and after this groundbreaking program:

In the spring of 2010, as a college senior at Washington University in St. Louis, I decided to continue my studies and pursue a career in academia.

As an art history major, I had taken several unpaid internships in order to orient myself with potential career trajectories. However, at the end of the day, I was somewhat dissatisfied with my parlays into museum studies, and was dismayed by the lack of resources in the non-profit arts sector. It wasn’t until the spring of my senior year that I realized that I was perhaps at my most content, work-wise, when I was sitting around a seminar table or hunkered down in the library laboring over a research paper. However, I wasn’t sure how to parlay this into a career, and a PhD wasn’t something that necessarily appealed to me in that moment when I was only a few months away from graduation.

Up until this point in my life, I hadn’t considered myself much of an “academic.” Perhaps it was because art history wasn’t necessarily my calling. For as long as I could remember, I had been drawn to the visual and to the creative and I had a knack for academic writing—thus, a major in art history served its purpose in college—but throughout my studies, I was consistently drawn to the peripheries of art historical study in my focus on fashion and costuming. Taking note of my personal interests as well as my personal misgivings, during my senior year, a professor took me under her wing and provided me the resources to write a seminar paper that bridged the fields of art history and a little-known field, at least to me, called fashion studies.

Through this seminar paper, I felt I found a place in academia where I belonged. While I had always had a personal interest in fashion, I naively failed to realize that this was a field of study unto itself. As it happened, after I had my revelation that I might be well suited in pursuing a career as a researcher and writer, I came across a call for applicants for the inaugural class of the MA Fashion Studies program at Parsons The New School for Design—or, in my case, a potential steppingstone en route to a PhD.

I applied and I was accepted, and in a whirlwind of a summer I packed up my life in St. Louis and moved to a studio apartment in Park Slope to begin the program in late August. It was an incredibly exciting time, but also an incredibly scary one. I still hadn’t come to perceive of myself as much of an “academic,” and I remember sitting around a table during a lunch orientation with the rest of my brilliant new peers feeling immensely insecure, and incredibly uncertain about the future of this new field called fashion studies.

Once the first day of classes commenced, though, all of my insecurities dissolved. I, like I think many of my classmates, reveled in the opportunity to talk about fashion in a critical and thoughtful way with twenty or so other likeminded women as we shared our thoughts on the summer reading—namely, Elizabeth Wilson’s fantastic Adorned in Dreams (1985). Shortly thereafter, we were all invited to attend our inaugural symposium, “Locating Fashion Studies: Research Sites and Practices,” at which we had the pleasure to meet some of the people who rounded our summer reading list—including Christopher Breward, Joanne Eicher, and Susan Kaiser—and at which I think we were all feeling a little bit star struck.

I remember little of the rest of that first year as many of my waking hours (and some of my sleeping hours, too) were dedicated to completing a mountain of term papers, and which, retrospectively, have blurred together into a dense fog of fashion theory. I do not think I am alone in saying that the first year of the MA Fashion Studies program was perhaps one of the most difficult of my academic career, but I will add that it was also one of the most rewarding. To put it succinctly, incoming students should be prepared for nothing less than fashion boot camp in that first year—a year from which you will emerge both a stronger writer and a more well-rounded fashion scholar.

The summer between the first and second year was filled with freelance work (I wrote briefly for an online fashion publication called AMMO) and internships (I was a trend forecasting intern at Edelkoort Inc., and later took an internship in the costume department at the Museum of the City of New York), during which time I became ever-more secure about my decision to pursue a career as a researcher, teacher, and writer, although the internships themselves were wonderful experiences. Despite the friends I’d made and the opportunities I’d been given, I had become disillusioned with “the fashion industry” very quickly as I’d found it difficult to reconcile my academic interests with the business of fashion. However, I would not trade my missteps for anything. It was part of the experience of becoming a New Yorker, and I don’t think anyone would turn down an invitation or two to New York Fashion Week…

During my time in the MA Fashion Studies program, I really connected with Anne Hollander and Joanne Entwistle’s respective work on the fashioned body. For my cumulative thesis, I wrote about the challenges plus-size women encounter in their daily dress practices, employing Entwistle’s theories of dress as a situated bodily practice. Adopting Sophie Woodward’s methodology of collecting sartorial biographies, my research also let me enter the lives and closets of some really incredible New York women, if only briefly.

I also took advantage of any opportunity that came my way to work as a teaching assistant (first for Introduction to Design Studies and Introduction to Modern Art, and later, History of Fashion), which segued into part-time work as an adjunct faculty member after graduation (during which time I taught a section of Introduction to Design Studies, several sections of Perspectives in World Art and Design, and an undergraduate elective on the supermodel).

In the October after I graduated, a call for applications for the Centre for Fashion Studies at Stockholm University was brought to my attention. The program, which was established in 2006, was something I had shoved deep into the back of my brain as something of a pipedream as no new students had been admitted since the program’s inception. However, a glut of new funding meant that five positions had opened up for January 2013. It was an opportunity that I had to jump at, even if it did potentially mean uprooting my life once again, and in a mere matter of months.

Skip ahead several months, and I now find myself writing these reflections from my office at Stockholm University. It was incredibly difficult to leave my life in New York to come to Stockholm to study, but I have few regrets as I have such a high level of job satisfaction here at the Centre. While I was deeply insecure about calling myself an academic in 2010, I have embraced the title of academic, even in these uncertain times.

My career path is certainly not an easy or straightforward one, and after I receive my doctorate I will be thrust into the incredibly cutthroat and competitive process of applying for postdoctoral fellowships and full-time teaching positions. The work of an academic is certainly not for everyone, and with fewer and fewer full-time positions available every year, it certainly is a scary time to be beginning a PhD. For the moment, though, I am incredibly grateful and happy to be here, and I take a lot of comfort in the fact that fashion studies is still emerging as a discipline.

If you would like to hear more about my experience in the MA Fashion Studies program or if you would like more information about the life of a PhD student, please feel free to contact me at lauren.e.downing@gmail.com or lauren.downing.peters@ims.su.se.

For more information about Lauren’s thesis or any of the other master’s theses for the MA Fashion Studies class of 2012, click here.  



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