FIT Symposium, Day 2

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Saturday’s morning session of the FIT Symposium opened with David Colman of the New York Times speaking on the current revival of preppy style. This paper was particularly interesting to me, not only because I’ve recently migrated to Williamsburg, Brooklyn where this style can be found in a million different manifestations, but primarily because I also see preppy style as one of most intriguing springboards for discussing issues of dress, the individual, and group membership.

Colman mentioned the unique nostalgia or longing that is at work in the desire to dress as a prep. But he wonders if most people are pining for a past they never even experienced. Which leads to the question of authenticity… Preppy style – as it’s been interpreted and re-interpreted in so many different scenarios (most recently by Japanese consumers who seem to have a insatiable interest in this style of dress) – almost inherently poses the question of authenticity. With important components of prepster style including boat shoes, hiking gear and collegiate references galore, one has to question: are all those who don this style of dress really preparing to board their yacht during spring break from their Ivy League college?

In conclusion, Colman referenced F. Scott Fitzgerald and “The Great Gatsby” as a sort of quintessential depiction of American Style.  Ultimately though, Fitzgerald was really just an outsider looking into the world of the WASP-y elite. So Colman leaves us pondering if it is actually only those on the “outside” who can truly define American Style.

Next, Holly George Warren took us on a romp through the Wild West with her paper on the designer Manuel and his cowboy suits for rockers and celebrities. Concluding the morning session was Dr. Van Dyk Lewis whose paper on Hip-hop fashion touched on issues concerning “thrown-ness,” trauma, and the “body-drop.” He also reiterated how fashion is essentially a magnification of every individual’s fear of being different.

design by Claire Mccardell, American Designer par excellence

design by Claire Mccardell, American Designer par excellence

Another highlight of Saturday’s session was Eric Wilson‘s talk on “Fashion Journalism in the Digital Age.” Of course, this paper was especially relevant to Tove and me, fashion bloggers that we are…

In general, Wilson reminded us that fashion is after all a visual language rather than a narrative, and that the variety of fashion blogs available online today simply highlights this visual element in a unique way.

In addition, he thinks that it is ultimately a good thing that what was once a very insular world (the world of fashion) is now available to everyone. However, one of the downsides he mentioned is the ease with which anyone can post comments on fashion blogs and other web-based materials. The posting of comments under a veil of anonymity often leads to writing and discussion which is much less objective and much less sophisticated.

The afternoon concluded with a conversation between designer Yeohlee Teng and Dr. Susan Sidlauskas. Yoehlee is known for her structurally minimal “no waste” designs. After discussing her inspiration and design process, Yoehlee treated the audience to a video of the runway show of her latest collection.

Despite what was essentially a delightful collection of papers seeking to capture some picture of American Style, in the end I found myself puzzled concerning the actual mission of the symposium.  Was it to attract people outside the fashion industry or was it to actually address real concerns of those immediately involved with fashion through their professions – whether it be designers, conservators, critics, or academics? I’m not really sure where such a symposium fits into the world of scholarly research, but as far as an outreach effort for the FIT Museum it served its purpose well.

As usual at these sort of events, most of the speakers ran past their time, throwing the conference off schedule and basically eliminating the question and answer period. I consider this a particular shame in this case, since I would really liked to have known who was in the audience, what their concerns were, and what their reactions to the papers would’ve been.

But overall, I did find the symposium to be inspiring in a variety of ways. I very much admire the work of Valerie Steele and Patricia Mears at the FIT Museum and I look forward to seeing how they continue to create a space where fashion can be taken seriously in an academic, aesthetic, and cultural sense.

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