Teaching Fashion: Multiple Choices

With every course, there are certain skills, knowledge or experiences the students must have in order to set them up for their futures. This is important, no doubt. But something that I consider equally important is giving students the opportunity to get excited about something within the framework of the class. Admittedly, this is harder to do in some classes than in others and may not happen universally with all students in every class. In order to set up the best chance for success in this area, I always give my students choices in their final projects. I am not talking about just a choice of topic within one framework – I provide students with two to three options on the type of project they want to do.

Today was one of those days as instructor, that I could think, “wow, I’ve done my job” in the area of excitement. It was the third out of four days of final presentations in History of Fashion and I was literally blown away. Every single student has poured themselves into their project and really produced something well done. Now, I could claim it is all due to my engaging teaching/lecturing style but I’m not that vain and I know it isn’t true. It is because they were able to take ownership of their project based on their personal skill sets and interests.

So what were the project choices? All projects were research based. The three choices are “Film/TV Costume Evaluation”, “Stories Through Dress” and “Research Paper”. The main goal of the film evaluation project is to examine, analyze and document costume or dress depicted in film or TV show and determine if it is portrayed accurately for its time period. The students are asked to select one costume of one character and analyze it in depth. In doing so, they become acquainted with research approaches and methods used in the study and interpretation of dress and conduct primary source research. The students are allowed to choose any period film they want within the time frame of the class and approved by me. In this case – 19th and 20th century.

Film/TV Costume Evaluation: Grease

“Stories Through Dress” came to me this past summer from a book given to me by my daughter for mother’s day; Dreaming of Dior. The author of this wonderful little book inherited a clothing collection and the book is a compilation of the stories of the women who owned or wore the clothing. It is a fascinating multi-generational look at the characteristics of memory and clothing. The goals of this project are to understand the connection of personal items of dress to the larger culture in which it was/is worn; to develop interviewing and data analysis skills related to the study of dress; to become acquainted with research approaches and methods used in the study and interpretation of dress; to conduct primary source research. The students developed interview tools and interviewed fifteen people on an article of dress the individual considered important. They needed to tie the garment to the time period in which it was worn through research and draw a conclusion (based on the interview data analysis) on what the dominant factor(s) were behind the clothing memories.

Stories Through Dress: Hmong Dress

“Research Paper” is just that – a straightforward, traditional research paper on any topic of the students choosing – approved by me in advance. I threw this into the mix because a student, a design student, who is very into Harajuku dress (Gothic Lolita in particular) had agreed to speak to the class about this subculture. She became so excited over the summer that she sent me a massive powerpoint with more information than could every be included in a short presentation. She is not a person who enjoys research or would choose to do a research paper. In fact, I had to push her a little to choose this option even though she had already done most of her research. I admit I was shocked when 40% of the class chose to do a research paper. Topics ranged from women’s baseball in the 1940s to steampunk in mainstream fashion to lesbian dress as a demand for visibility.

Research Paper: Baseball as a Means of Societal Interpretation

Framing multiple project choices initially creates more work for the instructor and does involve some thinking on how to make varied projects workload and research level equitable. Amount of research, number and type of sources, page length related to amount of research (the stories project was longer than the research paper for example), and number of images were all considered in writing the assignment guides. I have found this extra time is more than worth the effort. This is evidenced in students engaging in the course materials, developing research and data analysis skills, and furthering their passion for learning. I consider that the most important part of my job.

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  • Rachel Pollock December 22, 2010 09.33 pm

    Wow, i would love to read the paper about women’s baseball in the 40s. I’ve been researching a woman who was a pitcher for a women’s team who also became a pageant queen. That paper sound fascinating!

  • liza December 23, 2010 07.48 am

    How I wish I could have been your student.

    Re the student doing Lesbian dress as a demand for visibility. May I direct you and her to a series of essays I wrote in the 1970’s called What The Well Dressed Dyke Will Wear http://seesaw.typepad.com/dykeaquarterly/topic-fashion/. They are not all online yet, but a good sample is.

    Interesting, too, is the fact that I was chastised many times in the Lesbian press for writing about such superficial topics as fashion. Who knew, back then, that in the not too distant future clothing as a location of power, and cultural studies in general, would be a serious academic topic?

  • Ellen December 28, 2010 09.57 am

    Inspiring !

  • Jeremy Miller December 30, 2010 01.12 am

    Thanks for sharing this thoughtful approach. It is quite a joy when everything comes together as you describe. I have also struggled with balancing the workload among diverse projects.


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