FIT Symposium, Day 1

It was with typical excitement that fellow WT contributor Lucy Collins and I attended this year’s FIT symposium, “American Style.” Last year’s on subculture and fashion had blown me away with its interdisciplinary menagerie of distinguished speakers. Though there were not as many people outside the fashion field as last year, it was a generally rewarding to be an audience member.

Valerie Steele introduced FIT Museum collaborator Patricia Mears who delivered an overview of “American Beauty” where she discussed what made a well constructed garment and why it’s impossible to pin down purely American style. She peaked my interest with a quotation of designer and critic Elizabeth Hawes who in 1937 wrote — I paraphrase — that a garment isn’t complete until it’s worn and has assumed all the social and cultural implications of a product of it’s day and age. I heartily agree, Ms. Hawes.

Delightful Caroline Rennolds Milbank spoke on “The Origin of the American Look” next where she pointed out examples of the United States’ forefathers who had been criticized for too-casual dress, including George Washington, Ben Franklin, and John Adams. This was tied in to America’s national and deliberate rejection of the regal English monarchy, and ultimately led to one common feature of American style that lingers even today: the play between glamorous and informal fashion. This dichotomy surfaced in such moments as Lafayette’s visit to New York in 1824, when America’s previous penchant for informality was matched by it’s desire to greet the French Revolution War hero with sophisticated style; Milbank pointed out that in spite of this effort, America was still about 5 years behind European fashion plates. Since then, America has struggled and played with these themes, balancing between casual / simple and elegant / ornate, like Bill Blass’ organza, crusted formal shorts and Halston’s shirtwaist dress.

Kohle Yohannan, who recently wrote books on Valentina and Claire McCardell, took the opportunity to demonstrate the likeness between these seemingly dissimilar designers. Though they were at opposite ends of the price-point spectrum, both women eschewed of-the-moment trends and constrictive undergarments; Yohannan humorously quipped that in McCardell’s lines it was “simplicity” and in Valentina’s it was “minimalism.” Both designers contributed to American fashion with their designs’ wearability and elegance.

Next, Dr. Alexandra Palmer talked about Christian Dior’s New York-specific label, and how the great French designer infiltrated the American market by addressing American needs. He did so in 1948, a year after the (French) “New Look” because, unlike Paris which was occupied during WWII, USA didn’t suffer as much financially and therefore had a better fashion market. Dior’s shirtwaist dress had been a democratic working girl’s attire; Dior’s New York label elevated it to be that of society ladies’ as well.

From Coleen Hill I learned about Mr. John, the “Mad Hatter,” who, like many designers (including previously mentioned Valentina), clouded his true upbringing to add to his mystique. I’m not an accessories person myself, but this paper confirmed my suspicion that all haberdashers are a little nutty. In a fun way, of course!

As attendees, one thing Lucy and I noted about the audience was the incredible drop in attendance, even since last year. I know conferences and symposia are struggling to attract people willing to travel and pay for registration fees, lodging, and extracurricular meals and entertainment, it was still a shock to see the significantly shrunk audience, especially since students still got in for free. I do hope conferences like FIT’s can generate enough interest to wait out this economic slump and emerge as strong as ever.

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1 Comment

  • Kat December 08, 2009 02.47 pm


    I’m so glad you and Lucy had gotten a chance to attend the symposium. I wish I had known you were going, I would have tried to meet up! It sounds like it was really fulfilling. I think the lack of audience members has to do with the timing – it was in the midst of finals (at least, for FIT students; I know most of us didn’t attend because we had a paper due on Monday and lab work to complete) and my teacher said that the symposiums are usually in the beginning of the second semester, but for some reason they changed the date this year. Was it noticeably less crowded? That’s really a pity if it was 🙁


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