On Teaching Fashion: Out of the Studio.

I am a firm believer, indeed I say it to students every year that, ‘you are not going to get inspired looking at these four walls for two years.’ To me and my colleagues it is second nature to get out into the world, to see new things and visit exhibitions. In fact it was set as a challenge in our department to arrange a trip relevant to each new project – a brilliant idea I thought! Many an hour of my past student life and current professional practice is spent in galleries such at The Victoria and Albert Museum, or The Fashion and Textile Museum, London. I have seen amazing exhibitions such as Italian Fashion, Ballgowns and Knitwear: Chanel to Westwood.

When I went to the Ballgowns exhibition myself I spent around 2 hours inside mesmerised by the stunning examples of couture tailoring, beading and high quality craftsmanship by the likes of Norman Hartwell. Also the famous 1989 ‘Elvis’ dress worn by Princess Diana was present. I was utterly amazed at the pearl beaded detail all over.


Princess Diana Dress

My shock was when I took a group of students to this exhibition and 3 members of the group took only 15 minutes to declare they had ‘seen this exhibition.’ I could not believe it, and promptly marched them back in!

Following this, I thought long and hard, how could this be so? How could students be presented with this amazing wealth of knowledge in front of them, and some take 2 hours, and some 15 minutes? Have you ever taken a group of students to an exhibition and this happened? I have had this discussion with my colleagues many a time, and raised questions such as, is this a representation of the typical attention span in the 21st century? Could this ‘speed viewing’ come from high street shopping and the notion of impulse buying? Or could it be that some students connect more with fashion via the likes of Instagram or the Internet? Now, this is not all students, and I know how heart wrenching it is to drag eager individuals out of exhibitions because the bus is due to leave

A colleague of mine gave me her opinion, she felt students were no less engaged prior to the internet, but pre trip research and giving quality information about what students are going it see is vital. Hooking students in, and developing their understanding will enable them to participate in a Q&A debrief post trip about what they have seen. Her opinion is that the more informed you are about a topic, the more in which you will engage – quite true I feel! But, sadly, is there enough time in the working day for this preparation? And even less for pre trip gallery visits, which would further add to the levels of planning for the lecturer. Another opinion, which I have gathered, is about the level of students’ interaction with each other and stimuli. This could be because of the methods in which students’ learn and the way they engage with each other. Perhaps this is a want for response and immediate interaction and an audience to share ideas with. Many a student today is also constantly multitasking verbally interacting whilst using the latest social media in their hands, so to grab a persons full attention is a tall order!

I also took my students to Hollywood Costume at the V&A, the sheer size and scale of this stunned them! I do question is this because of the visual imagery and garments on show, which students identify with because of the films they have seen them in? Was there a higher level of engagement because students recognise what is in front of them? Or perhaps the clever use of video, media and audio displays throughout. I really enjoyed the dynamic mixture of creative presentation techniques this display used to grip the viewer in.

It would seem therefore, in trip planning, that pre-exhibition research or a creative task to engage and inspire is definitely needed. By finding out a list of the collection or designers on display for instance, you could then split these up and give one to each student as a target piece to gather information whilst on their trip. But then also challenge them – this could be on the course blog, or twitter account, to immediately write up a review of the piece in which they have been allocated. This could even be done on the journey home! Also, I am a firm believer in drawing! It is good to set students targets of illustrations to capture whilst in exhibitions, and ensure they are aware this will be used in their project work upon return to the studio!

What are your experiences of taking large groups of students to exhibitions? What is your opinion of the attention span and engagement of our students today?

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1 Comment

  • Bertrand February 20, 2015 07.58 am

    There is no doubt that an artful use of new medias and references to hegemonic cultural icons help involve the visitor in an exhibition, but I also think that someone studying design should not need this special attention.
    “Could this ‘speed viewing’ come from high street shopping and the notion of impulse buying?”
    I think you might be onto something here, but I fear it is a much more nebulous phenomenon:
    When I was at school, a few years back, one of our cultural studies teachers told early in the school year, that many a fashion student arrived at school believing that “he would be good at design because he was good at shopping” and the selection process would probably keep those away from actual design jobs.
    As a matter of fact, many a student (the younger the more difficult I think) cannot be bothered with high culture, be that of books, of exhibitions, of documentaries, or what not.
    Why is that? Well I would venture a wild guess that the democratization of culture make it seems that the production of cultural artifact is spontaneous rather than painstaking, that designs, art, or whatnot, are somehow appendices to a “fabulous” life, which only need to be led with self-confidence enough to reveal one’s own exceptional essence.
    I think this attitude is fostered by the industry as a whole, and by magazines in particular. The worst is that this obsession with popular culture, ease of access and instant gratification, does not even preclude elitism as we might have hoped.
    Other fields of design, in fact most other fields of design, are much less lenient in terms of culture – I think fashion education need to take “cultural studies” more seriously, or better even, drop that hazy and ill-defined field all-together and give the students some actual fashion-theory courses, as architecture schools give architecture-theory lessons.


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