Celebration à la Mode: Fashion in Academia
Since the publication of Valerie Steele’s 1991 essay “The F-Word,” it would seem that we have truly moved on from a time when “The F-word still has the power to reduce many academics to embarrassed or indignant silence” 1. The F-word – that is Fashion – seems to no longer be something to be afraid of or to apologize for, and instead appears to be asserting itself within the context of academia in a way that may, on reflection some years hence, come to be known as a sort of ‘Golden Age’ in the development of Fashion Thinking and Fashion Studies. Or, perhaps more optimistically, we are now living in a time when Fashion is asserting its place fully and unconditionally within the parameters of academia – perhaps within museology and curation – as a field of legitimate academic enquiry. Surely that is something to celebrate?
But what could have caused this happy phenomenon, this popping of champagne corks? What is the evidence supporting this celebration? Arguably, the work of Dr. Steele and those of her ‘generation’ of fashion scholars have assisted greatly in this assertion of Fashion as an area of academic study through their contributions in publications, teaching and lecturing, public talks, conference appearances, and in the case of Steele specifically, in the 1997 establishment of the pioneering journal Fashion Theory: Journal of Dress, Body and Culture, and Directorship of the Museum at FIT. Other contributors of this calibre include Christopher Breward, Caroline Evans, Angela McRobbie, Joanne Entwistle, Pamela Church-Gibson, and Hazel Clark, to name just a few, who, through the 1990s and up to the present day, have sought to build on the work of earlier scholars primarily concerned with the historical aspects of fashion. These individuals have sought to address and bring to the forefront consideration of contemporary aspects of fashion and fashion thinking through ideas on modernity, the body, fashion as industry, fashion film, fashion cultures, and fashion as a part of everyday life. The work of organizations such as The Costume Society in the UK and their journal Costume, together with scholars such as Joanne B. Eicher, Aileen Ribeiro, and Lou Taylor, has been highly influential on thinking through fashion from an object-analysis approach which continues to remain an integral and important component of fashion scholarship today. In turn, this has in some respects also coincided with a developing interest and need to present fashion objects as items of scholarly interest in fashion exhibitions and dedicated museums. In referencing influential thinkers on fashion, no review is perhaps complete without acknowledgment of Elizabeth Wilson and her seminal book ‘Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity’ 2. All of these scholars, and others, have sought to establish a healthy foundation for the evolvement of fashion within an academic context and have also assisted in widening the ‘community of practice’ that fashion studies has since become within the USA, Europe, and beyond.
If looking for proof of this, there are perhaps now more opportunities than ever to pursue and to expand fashion thinking within the parameters of academia, which in itself may be viewed as a sign of strength and confidence. There are a wide variety of formats through which this can be facilitated and pursued, and together these form a community of practice for fashion which, to take Etienne Wenger’s definition, can be explained as follows:
Communities of practice are an integral part of our daily lives. They are as informal and so pervasive that they rarely come into explicit focus, but for the same reasons they are also quite familiar. Although the term may be new, the experience is not. Most communities of practice do not have a name and do not issue membership cards 3.
Within the context of fashion these ‘communities of practice’ can be experienced not only through the formal confines of an academic course at institutions such as London College of Fashion, Central Saint Martins, Royal College of Art, Parsons The New School for Design, IUAV Venice and Fashion Studies Centre Stockholm University, but also through other groups and organisations. Aside from the long-established Costume Society and the Costume Society of America, other groups as diverse as the Fashion Research Network and Association of Dress Historians in the UK, Séminaire Histoire de Mode in France, and Netzwerk Mode Textil in Germany offer a forum for thinking through fashion in the form of seminars and symposiums. To further contextualize this diversity of communities of practice, other projects and organizations are also leading in opening up aspects of fashion scholarship. One notable example is The Fashion in Film Festival, established in 2006 by Marketa Uhlirova, which has (re)opened an interest in the exploration of film, and in particular archive film, from populist full-length features to small fragments hidden in archives as a site and medium of exploration for fashion researchers and dress historians. The increasing number of fashion exhibitions together with the opening of specialist fashion museums in recent years are also exemplars of this, as in the cases of the Fashion and Textiles Museum in London, ModeMusuem Hasselt and MoMu Fashion Museum of the Province of Antwerp, Belgium, MUDE in Lisbon, and in exhibitions as diverse as Catwalk at the Rijksmusuem, Amsterdam, Hardy Aimes at Valence House, Dagenham, UK, The Vulgar: Fashion Redefined at the Barbican, and Mode In Flux by White Lines Projects.
Other formats for exploration in fashion thinking and fashion studies include the publication of numerous journals, both print and online-based, which offer opportunities to think through fashion academic-writing and critical analysis. These include Address: Journal of Fashion Writing and Criticism edited by Johannes Reponen, Vestoj: The Journal of Sartorial Matters, edited by Anja Aronowsky Cronberg, Catwalk: Journal of Fashion Beauty and Style, edited by Dr Jacque Lynn Foltyn and The International Journal of Fashion Studies, overseen by Dr. Agnès Rocamora. This latter journal in particular seeks to provide fashion scholars practicing in languages other than English with the opportunity to have their work translated and read by a wider audience, another indication of the larger, growing development of writing on fashion as a part of academic practice. Taken together with the small yet dedicated number of publishers who seek to publish academic tomes and exhibition catalogues on fashion, these journals hint at a healthy interest in fashion as a publishable topic of scholarly interest to a globally active community of practice.
Fashion is celebrated through the pages of glossy magazines, advertising, department store window displays, and in the images of fashion shows and parties appearing on Instagram feeds and in Snapchat messages, all of which are often essential material to the academic fashion researcher. Yet perhaps now is also the time to celebrate the current culture and community of practice that fashion academia now affords. Challenges to this growth are still inherent, but perhaps these too are to be celebrated. They encourage creativity and the development of new skill sets to further the community of practice that is to lead fashion academia through this period and into future successes in publishing, teaching, events hosting, and curating – and that is something to be celebrated.
1 Valerie Steele, (1991) ‘The F-Word’, Lingua Franca, http://www.wiu.edu/users/mfbhl/180/steele.htm (accessed 6th January 2017).
2 Elizabeth Wilson, (1985) Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity, London: Virago Press Ltd.
3 Etienne Wenger, (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 7.
“Perhaps now is also the time to celebrate the current culture and community of practice that fashion academia now affords.”