From the Archives: On Teaching Fashion

The new year always leads me to reflect on my past so that I can set new goals.  This year will mark the start of my third year teaching fashion as an adjunct instructor.  Looking back at this experience, I have identified one main key to success.  This key will work in any course, across disciplines, and keep your students engaged and learning.  So what is this mysterious tenet?

What I’ve learned from my experiences is that keeping students engaged and learning requires you to keep a balance between teaching and entertaining.  Consider this your mathematical equation for success:

50% information + 50% entertainment = 100% learning success

Now, that means as an instructor I am ALWAYS searching for new materials, new techniques and ways to reach my students.  The classroom is a stage, I am the performer, and my students are the critics.

Entertaining students with factual information isn’t as difficult as it sounds.  It usually involves presenting the information, illustrating how that information is relevant to today’s world, and then giving them an activity to internalize the information.  I’ve found this formula is particularly helpful when teaching a history of costume course.

Chasuble, late 1500s. Italian voided silk velvet and silk brocade with linen lining. Allentown Art Museum.

Let’s face it: some historical eras can seem inaccessible and therefore boring to students.  For example, when teaching the Middle Ages, I’ve found a lot of resistance in discussing monastic dress.  Students tend to immediately dismiss this topic as stodgy and completely irrelevant to anything they’d want to  design.  So it’s up to me to change their minds.  Challenge accepted.

Local museums are often a fantastic and overlooked resource.  Quite honestly, I sometimes forget to investigate smaller museums, assuming that they are too small to have a costume or textile collection.  Yet I was pleasantly surprised by my recent visit to the Allentown Art Museum.  The museum had a small exhibit entitled Heaven on Earth: Textiles of the Renaissance and Baroque.  I was immediately inspired to create an assignment for my history of costume class.

I’ve found that after lecturing on topics, it’s best to have an activity that reinforces the information you’ve covered.  To really drive the point home, I always ask for a comparison to the present day.  (You’ll see this in the activity I created below.)  Without understanding the evolution of history and it’s impact on today’s world, you’re entering treacherous waters.  I never want my students to be wondering “when am I ever going to use this?”.  If you can illustrate why topics are relevant and important to your students’ careers, they’ll be much more likely to remember the content of your course.

For this assignment, I would take the class to the museum and conduct a brief review of the Middle Ages and Italian Renaissance.  Then I would have the class break into small groups and complete the following questions:

  • In your own words, describe who would have worn a chasuble and what were its historic origins.
  • Even though these textiles were made in Italy, how do they showcase cross-cultural influences?  Please discuss where the design motifs originated and how they arrived in Italy.

Detail of Chasuble, late 1500s. Italian voided silk velvet and silk brocade with linen lining. Allentown Art Museum.

  • Clothing communicates identity.  Aside from the chasuble being a uniform, what did the quality of the textiles used say about the wearer?  Please compare the chasuble to the garments of common people at the time and explain how this indicated status.
  • One of the major sources of information about dress of the time comes from illuminated manuscripts and religious art.  How accurate are these sources compared to the textiles in this exhibition?  Please compare and contrast a textile and painting of your choice.  (A great source for illuminated manuscripts is the Morgan’s online exhibition, Illuminated Fashion)

Detail of Vestment decoration, c. 1625. Italian silk satin with embroidery. Allentown Art Museum.

  • Italy became the velvet capital of the world during the Middle Ages and Renaissance.  In your own words, please describe the technology needed to make velvet and why it was so “cutting edge” at the time.  Compare and contrast this to the leading technology of our era.

Orphrey Fragment of The Annunciation, early 1400s. Italian silk with gilt foil-wrapped thread, brocade weave. Allentown Art Museum.

Before leaving, I would have a discussion where each group share their answers.  For homework, I would have them do either one of two assignments:

  • Sketch a contemporary garment inspired by the textiles and garments from our museum visit.
  • Research a contemporary designer who designed a collection based on textiles and garments from this time period.  Write a brief response to their collection, and describe your favorite look.  Compare this look to what we saw on our museum trip.  (Remember to print image)

Either homework assignment will illustrate how these historical trends can be used today.  When I assign a sketching assignment, I only assess it for neatness and connection to the material covered.  I wouldn’t grade it in the same manner as a portfolio course.  Here is an example of a similar assignment I gave when teaching the 18th Century.  My student, Sandra, designed a modern-day take on the chemise a la reine by using a traditional silhouette with contemporary fabrics.

Modern-day take on the chemise a la reine. Illustration by Sandra Church.

Happy teaching!

Related Articles

Leave a Comment

Monthly Archive


Available now: Punk Style by Worn Through founder, Monica Sklar, PhD. Find it at :, Powell's Books, or a bookseller near you.