On Teaching Fashion: From the Archives

This week, I’m gearing up for midterms.  This term, I have  three courses that meet for three hours each.  In addition to creating new assessments, I’ve also been creating new lectures.  Looking back at this article from the archives, Do They Hear What I Hear? was very useful.   In the upcoming weeks, I’ll be writing more about creating assessments.


There comes a moment in your teaching career when you are assigned a new course.  It may be your very first time leading a classroom, or you may be a seasoned professional tackling a special topics class.  You’re eager, and ready for the challenge.

Then, the bleak reality of the situation sets in: you have two weeks to design your course.  This means creating a syllabus, tests, assignments, and seemingly endless hours of lectures and activities.  It starts out innocently enough.  The syllabus and assignments are created, and the semester starts.  You’re ahead of schedule . . . until one day, you’re not anymore.  The information starts to feel overwhelming.  How can you condense all of your research into a neat, 1 hour and 45 minute class?  It seems like you’re spending 8 hours preparing for 1 lecture.

Class starts.  You present the lecture and feel great.  All of the main issues were covered, the images were great, and you even made a handout.  What a great lecture!  Or was it?


Cartoon courtesy of brownsharpie.courtneygibbons.org

As academics, we can become engrossed in our topics of expertise.  So engrossed, that it becomes difficult to gauge our students previous knowledge on the subject, as well as what they are retaining from our classes.  This affect can be compounded when you’re teaching a course for the first time.  You’ve spent the last 3 days preparing a lecture on fashion during the Reformation, but your students might not remember what the Reformation was.

Cartoon courtesy of cartoonstock.com

It’s critical to gauge your students’ knowledge and understanding of the material when you’re teaching a course for the first time.  It can be tricky the first time around, but here are some tips:

1) Always state the obvious. You have a post-secondary degree.  Your students do not.  Don’t gloss over the obvious, essential points when lecturing.  It’s a great review for them, and the perfect way to introduce more complicated material.  Not every single student will be interested every single second of your class, especially if they have some previous knowledge.  But keep in mind, many of them don’t, so don’t be afraid to start at square one.

2) Start class with a review. Have 4-5 questions and present them to your class.  Make sure the questions cover the main ideas from your previous lecture.  This is a sneaky, 2-in-1 move: it gets the students to participate and recall the relevant points you taught.  By making the review discussion-based, your students will construct the knowledge on their terms.  This equals greater retention of information.

3) Introduce relevant current events.  When you make your course relevant to current events, students see the practical applications.  They may even see a different perspective on the information you’re covering.  Target industry-based publications and popular media, and skim the latest news daily.  Here’s a fun discussion I used in my history of costume class:  Pharaohs in ancient Egypt wore false beards to indicate their status as ruler.  Pharaohs were always male, until the reign of Hatshepsut.  (Hatsheput, a woman, reigned as pharaoh c. 1497 -1458 B.C.)   How might have the citizens of Egypt felt about this blurring of gender roles through dress?  Compare and contrast this to Lady Gaga’s appearance in the 2011 VMA’s, dressed as a man (aka Jo Calderone).  This created an interesting discussion about gender roles and how identity is communicated through fashion.  It also illustrated that people still have strong opinions about cross-dressing.

4) Let them teach you.  Assign presentations and projects that put your students in the driver’s seat.  Ask them to bring a quote from the assigned reading which they related to, or found inspiring.  Have them review the historical accuracy of different films for a project.  If a particular chapter is difficult, ask them to bring topics or passages that they did not understand.  When the students take an active role in the course, it’s easier to identify what they are learning, and what you need to review.

These are just some of the techniques I’ve found to work along the way.  Many of you might have other tips and tricks for tackling for teaching a new course.  I hope you’ll share what has worked for you in the comments.

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