Museum Life: CSA Symposium Snapshot

With the Costume Society of America’s annual symposium in the neighborhood this year, I headed down to San Antonio for three whirlwind days of presentations, demonstrations, and exhibitions. In addition to meeting new people and learning about research on a variety of subjects, I encountered several objects that may be of interest to readers. Below is a selection:

A portable LED-lit microscope that hooks up to a computer and has the capability to capture still photos or video. This particular model, by Celestron, was used during Claire Shaeffer‘s workshop on couture sewing techniques. It can be found online for the reasonable price range of $50-100. Its application on a Christian Lacroix jacket revealed that a seemingly complex twill weave structure is in fact a plain weave, and the black silk fiber is instead a very dark purple.

Couture is all about hidden, meticulous detail, sometimes hiding in plain sight.  A very close examination of this 1960s Chanel jacket from Shaeffer’s collection (above) revealed that the knit fabric was cut apart and sewn back together again, almost imperceptibly, to achieve the desired effect of this striking black and white plaid pattern. The plaid pattern in its original, pre-altered state (with skinnier black stripes, diagonally oriented) can be seen on the underside of the collar.

3-D printing and modeling had a significant presence this year, with one panel presentation on its application in theater costume (Joe Kucharski of Baylor University), one poster on textile technology experiments (from Helen S. Koo of University of California, Davis and Seoha Min of University of North Carolina at Greensboro), and another on digitally recreating missing pieces in historic costume collections with 3-D modeling software (Cara Tortorice, Worn Through alum Kelly Cobb, and Dilia Lopez-Gydosh of University of Delaware).

Below is a detail of a 3-D printed Elizabethan neck ruff created by Joe Kucharski of Baylor University for a production of Twelfth Night. The incredible detail and simulated delicacy was achieved through a digital scan of Renaissance lace. It will be interesting to see how 3-D scanning, manipulating, and printing will be applied to exhibition display and design, or physically recreating missing ensemble pieces in a museum collection.


The McNay Museum held over two exhibitions for CSA members of Ballets Russes costumes, sketches, and illustrations and related printed material from the period of 1909-early 1930s (All the Rage in Paris; (Design, Fashion, Theater). The Ballets Russes exhibition was augmented by items owned and worn by wealthy San Antonio women inspired by the colors, patterns, and rich embellishment of the Ballets Russes costumes and set designs. These lovely fashion garments were provided by the nearby Witte Museum. Below is a juxtaposition of a costume from Sadko (1911) with a 1920s evening coat (both in different galleries, my pairing).



All photos provided by the author.


CFP: Restraint and Excess in Fashion and Dress

Costume Colloquium V: Restraint and Excess in Fashion and Dress
Florence, Italy

Abstracts due June 15, 2015
November 17-20, 2016 (Exact dates to be confirmed)

Call for Papers

The Advisory Committee and organizers of the next Costume Colloquium dedicated to Restraint and Excess in Fashion and Dress are seeking new and unpublished papers for the 2016 conference. As with all the previous Costume Colloquium conferences, presentations can be made on material of a theoretical and/or practical nature. Not only informative, but also inventive and creative presentations are welcome.

Topics of interest include, but are not limited to, the following themes and subthemes:

Fashionable restraint:
Physical body distortion, health issues and wearing restrictive garments

Unfashionable restraint:
Sumptuary legislation, dress codes and regulations in religious, civil and military attire

Fashion on show and display:
On stage, at Court, on catwalks, in store fronts, in museums

Embellishments and accessories:
Opulent decorations, jewelry, handbags, shoes, etc.

Too much or too little:
Extravagant, exotic, erotic, modest, minimalistic

Excess and restraint in the development of the fashion industry:
Globalization and international trade, shopping and consumerism, emerging markets

Submission Information and Instructions:

Send your proposal abstract to with Abstract Submission CCV in the subject line, using the CCV Submission Form that you can download here. Only abstracts using the form will be accepted. Read the full call and review proposal criteria at


You Should Be Watching: The True Cost

Released worldwide on May 29, The True Cost is a documentary film that explores the current state of the global fashion industry and its impact on workers, consumers and the environment. Focusing on the development of the fast fashion business model, the documentary features interviews with many industry experts and sustainable fashion activists, including Stella McCartney, Livia FirthLucy Siegle and Safia Minney.

In the clip below, director Andrew Morgan explains how he became involved in the project and his personal reasons for making the film. Approaching the subject as an outsider with no prior experience in the fashion industry, Morgan says he was inspired to create the film after he heard about the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh – and started to ask what seemed like straightforward questions about where the clothing he wears came from.

Morgan and his team travel to Dhaka, where they meet Shima, a garment factory worker who recounts her struggles to earn a living wage for herself and her family. Shima tells the filmmaker about her attempt to start a union among her fellow workers, which was physically and brutally stifled by factory management. This is just one story featured – which could have probably been a documentary on its own, in addition to other farming and garment workers from Cambodia, India, Haiti and the United States.

The True Cost is a very effective compilation of the major social and environmental issues facing the fashion industry, striking a balance between far-reaching and hard-hitting statistics (the average American throws away 82 pounds of clothing per year, the fashion industry is only second to oil as the most polluting industry in the world) and individual stories of garment workers, activists and designers who are committed to making change happen. Safia Minney’s fair trade clothing company People Tree and Livia Firth’s consultancy Eco-Age are just two examples of small but hopeful progress being made in the industry.

By the end of the film, it was hard not to feel something as a montage of fast fashion retail and YouTube shopping ‘haul’ videos are juxtaposed with garment workers in deplorable conditions. Even though I was fully aware of the impact of fast fashion on the human and natural economies, The True Cost is the catalyst that has finally made me rethink my shopping habits and begin moving towards a minimalist wardrobe – a topic which I will discuss in next week’s You Should Be Reading column.

Click here to find out about the remaining screenings planned, and here to watch the documentary now via various digital options.


On Teaching: Summer Engagement Strategies

Summer is fast approaching and it is time to start thinking about vacation, family time, and for many college administrators, student retention. During this time of year, students also begin to think about time with friends and family. Too often the summer turns quickly into fall and, before you know it, several students have decided not to come back to college. How can we counteract this? What can we do to encourage students to continue pursuing their fashion degree?


Photo courtesy of Yellow Brick Road

I began observing post-summer retention several years back when I began noticing a handful of students saying the same thing before the summer break: they were going to take time off to spend more time with friends and family. Of course they all said they would be back after a little time off! Sadly, almost all of them did not return. Many students I followed, I’ve come to find out, never went back to any college to finish any type of degree. I wanted to know if this happened to more colleges and what others were doing to mitigate these circumstances.

An average of 60% of the students who leave college do not return to the same institution (Bushong, 2009). Research shows student retention varies from college to college, and that students leave for various reasons. One commonality appears to be the loss of students after their first year. Much of the research surrounds incoming freshman and how to ensure academic success during and after their first year. A negative experience could be more impactful to freshmen than to their more academically advanced peers and lead to a freshman’s withdrawal from school (Roberts & Styron, 2009).


Photo courtesy of Teen Life

All students face transitional adjustments when pursuing a college education (Budny & Paul, 2003). To aid in this adjustment and to attempt to create positive experiences for students, I have begun creating an engagement strategy to help mitigate these circumstances.

  1. During the break, provide service-learning opportunities. For those students wanting to do something meaningful during their break, I have set up opportunities to work with a group of peers to help local businesses. For example, students will have the opportunity to intern or volunteer with charities such as Dress for Success and the local senior center. The administrators for these groups and I worked to prepare a two-to-three week project where students work with an underserved or needy market to research and analyze a pressing issue, and then prepare and implement a solution. While they may not be taking college courses or even step onto a campus, the students will remain connected with the college through these sponsored events.
  2. Encourage summer school with additional, free workshops. For those students who would have withdrawn from school after taking the summer off, providing an incentive to return for summer school is another initiative I am introducing. Starting the first week of school and spanning the remainder of the summer quarter, students will have the opportunity to meet outside professionals and learn additional skills through workshops in between class times. Topics for the workshops are developed by surveying students, particularly those at risk, and include topics such as couture techniques, fashion journalism, and fashion photography.
  3. Host a college job fair. One common reason students leave school that  I have observed is because of financial difficulty. Students often need college jobs to help them meet their bills and provide a more comfortable life. To assist students in securing these college jobs, a job fair held during the beginning of the summer quarter will encourage students to return to campus and create support outside the classroom for the students.
  4. Provide internship opportunities to all students. In addition to the college job fair, internship sites will also be on campus during the beginning of the summer quarter. Top fashion colleges offer internship opportunities to students at all levels of the program. In addition, providing internships to students early in their program will allow students to build an impressive level of experience in the industry while still in college (Roth, 2014).

These four engagement strategies are developed to provide student engagement and build value with the college. While these are developed based on research conducted around first year students, I believe they will also engage the entire of the student population. To measure the results, the retention data from the Spring, Summer and Fall quarters the previous three years will be compared to the retention results of this year. If there is an increase, the initiatives will be improved and implemented again next year.


Photo courtesy of Kingston University

Not all students will return to college or continue to pursue their degree in fashion. However, by attempting to understand the reasons they decide not return that are within our control, hopefully we can influence more students to continue their education. Providing engaging and positive experiences over the break may be just the thing to improve post-summer retention. 

What do you do to encourage student progression?  What other options do you think this initiative could benefit from?


Budny, D. D., & Paul, C. A. (2003).Working with students and parents to improve. Journal of STEM Education, 413(4), 1-9, Retrieved from

Bushong, S. (2009). Freshman retention continues to decline, report says. Chronicle of Higher Education, Retrieved from Continue/42287/.

Roth, L. (2014). The Top 50 Fashion Schools in the World: 2014 edition., Retrieved on May 25, 2015.

Robert, J. & Styron, R. (2009). Student Satisfaction and Persistence: Factors vital to student retention. Research in Higher Education Journal, Retrieved from



Fashion-Focused Digital Resources: HEARTH Home Economics Archive

HEARTH (Home Economics Archive: Research, Tradition, History) is a fantastic digital archive compiled by the Albert R. Mann Library at Cornell. Launched in 2003, HEARTH was recognized in a 2013 study of long-term sustainability of digital collections. The collection’s highlights, and likely what brings the most users to the site, are historical runs of Harper’s Bazaar, 1867-1900, and Good Housekeeping, 1885-1919.

HEARTH’s Help page provides site navigation and searching tips. Users can browse by author and title of publications within the database or start with the full list of just journal titles. The user-friendly Subject browse page presents a selection of materials within HEARTH by topic, and each topic is introduced with a brief essay and a bibliography of core resources available in HEARTH. The extensive Clothing and Textiles bibliography points to primary sources on historic clothing construction, weaving, needlework, dyes, and more. HEARTH is a great starting point for researchers wishing to write about late nineteenth-early twentieth century home arts, interiors, etiquette, hygiene, consumerism and other topics relevant to fashion historians.

At over 1600 volumes in HEARTH’s own repository, the Mann Library also links to additional related digital resources at Cornell: the “What Was Home Economics?” online exhibition and the Human Ecology Historical Photographs digital collection (check out Textiles and Clothing and House Interiors). Happy researching!

Photo credits: Cornell University Library. Click the images for more information.


A Postcard from Abroad: Summertime in the UK

Hello!  It’s nice to be back, and be able to bring you a summery round up of fashion related events and exhibitions in the UK over the next few months.  My last Worn Through contribution was in early spring and I must say a massive thank you to our Managing Editor Brenna Barks for covering in my absence with some great videos; that last one certainly sets the seasonal tone!

To start, I would like to mention the Textile Society has a great overview of events, exhibitions and activities over the summer that cover both fashion and textiles interests.  I strongly recommend having a closer look because whereas I tend to focus more on London and fashion related events, they provide excellent UK coverage of textile related events.  With that in mind, there are a few things taking place in the capital that I want to highlight now!


The first one is the Institute of Historical Research’s (IHR) 84th Anglo-American Conference of Historians, 2-3 July, which focuses on the subject of fashion In collaboration with the V&A Museum, the IHR hopes to showcase the importance of fashion and how it brings together museums, graduate teaching programmes, learned societies and the fashion profession around a common set of interests and concerns.  This two day conference includes over 30 panel sessions, which encompass the history of fashion, tastes, design innovation, globalisation, museum display, consumption and retailing.  There will also be a special exhibition in the IHR,  in partnership with the Senate House Library, that looks like a rare opportunity to see fashion images from their catalogues.  Tickets are now available and a provisional programme can be viewed here.

Fine Cell Work, 2010,

The second display to catch my eye is the artist Cornelia Parker’s contemporary Magna Carta, on public view at the British Library until 24 JulyTo mark its 800th anniversary, the British Library commissioned Parker to create a new artwork and her response was to fabricate the entire Wikipedia entry on the Great Charter with only embroidered stitches.  While the work was produced in association with the Embroiderer’s Guild, the Royal School of Needlework and Hand & Lock, many hands contributed to the piece, including Fine Cell Work, who support prisoners by training them in needleworkHave a look at the video about the making of the piece – it’s fascinating. I am really looking forward to seeing this in person and great to see such a esteemed British artist drawing upon textiles as her medium of choice here.

The third event I want to mention is actually two, insomuch they are both shows based in universities.  At Goldsmiths University, the BA Fine Art/History of Art students have drawn upon the Goldsmiths Textiles Collection to create Reconstructing Textiles.  This exhibition, only open until 23 June, is an attempt to draw connections between contemporary practices and archival material. For me, any opportunity to see the Goldsmiths Textiles Collection is a golden one and it is great to see students engaging with previous students work in the archive.

Image taken from Fabric of the City website. Unknown source.

At The Cass, part of London Metropolitan University, staff and students have invited textile and fashion designers to celebrate the local history of Spitalfield’s 17th century silk weavers for an exhibition entitled Fabric of the City.  This is part of The Cass’ contribution to the festival ‘Huguenot Summer 2015’, organised by the Huguenots of Spitalfields in partnership with the City of London.  The Cass is where I teach so it is great to share what they are up to, especially as, due to health reasons, I have not been there these last couple of months.  The exhibition runs 10-25 July.

Morecambe and Wise presenting Miss Great Britain 1965. Photograph: Fashion and Textile Museum

Moving on, summer is that time when we panic about swimwear in the UK, especially because the opportunity to wear it, given our climate, is so very small.  However, this does not stop us fantasising about the ideal bikini or one-piece nor us purchasing something new each year in the hope that this time, it really will be perfect!  Seeking some kind of perspective then, it may be helpful to catch RIVIERA STYLE Resort & Swimwear since 1900at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London this summer.  On until 30 August, this exhibition, in association with Leicestershire County Council Museums, focuses not just on swimwear style but also technological developments in fabric and the role of retailing in making those design innovations popular.  I hope to review this later on in the month but be great to hear from anyone who has already visited in the comments below.

Camper advertising, SS 1977 and SS 1992 Source: Design Museum

While on the topic of summer sartorial concerns, shoes are also perhaps a major obsession as we dare to bare our pale pieds.  Last year, I was obsessed with clogs.  I thought they were the perfect summer shoe because, unlike most sandals, they kept my toes out of sight.  However, after realising I cannot walk in clogs – too many years wearing flats – I am now still on the lookout for my ideal summer shoe.  Along with my ideal swimming garment, come to think of it.  Perhaps then it comes as no surprise to see two major London design museums dedicating their summer exhibition space to what we put on our feet.  In east London, the Design Museum focuses on the Spanish footwear brand Camper in Life on Foot while in west London, the V&A Museum looks at the extremities footwear has gone to in Shoes: Pleasure and Painife on Foot, open now until 1 November, is the use of archival material from Camper to tell the design story of their products from the drawing board to the concept store.  Meanwhile, Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, open 13 June until 31 January 2016, draws upon the V&A’s historic collection to present over 200 pairs of shoes in considering how technology often provides opportunities for extreme wearability

Detail from United States market advertisement, 1947. Courtesy of Jamie Mulherron.

Lastly, I noticed an exhibition about Pringle of Scotland knitwear at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh entitled Fully Fashioned and open until 16 August.  Marking the company’s 200th anniversary, the exhibition charts the history of what is now an international fashion brand with the use of archival material and knitwear garments. I would love to hear from anyone who has visited it or whether it might be travelling to other museums later in the year.

Happy holidays!


Parisian Insights: 120 ans de Cinéma – Gaumont

120 years ago, cinema was invented and 120 years ago, the Gaumont company was created. With the help of a free exhibition, at the contemporary art space, le 104, Gaumont not only celebrates its birthday but also cinema. I must say I am a huge fan of cinema and belong to this category of people that are highly emotionally involved when they watch a film. From the actors to the music as well as the décors and costumes, everything fascinates me. Pedagogic and playful, the exhibition 120 ans de cinéma highly fulfilled my taste for film with numerous artefacts belonging to the company’s archives or the Musée des Arts Forains alongside the obvious film abstracts and, finally, interesting evocations of contemporary art.

When Léon Gaumont discovered the Lumière brothers’ revolutionary invention in 1864, he decided to design his very own film objects such as cameras and spotlights. Under the pressure of his customers, he promptly understood he needed to imagine films and thus launched his production activity. At that moment, the story of the French company coincided with that of an avant-garde woman, Alice Guy who became the world’s first film director and a specialist of comic fictions and imagined the first ‘peplum’ when she directed a ‘blockbuster’ dedicated to the Bible. In the meantime, Léon Gaumont pursued his inventions and proposed the first example of image and sound synchronization while he invented the Thrichromie – Technicolor’s ancestor. From the 1930s, the firm focused on production and thus established its global success.

The Fifth Element by Luc Besson - Costume by Jean Paul Gaultier - Musée Gaumont

The Fifth Element by Luc Besson – Costume by Jean Paul Gaultier – Musée Gaumont


Built around a tent – cinema, in its early days, did not belong to dark rooms but to fairgrounds – that shows numerous early films, various spaces invite visitors to comprehend but also interact with film.  The main space, entitled the Trésor, indeed delivers the precious and rarely seen treasures of the company, from posters designed by Andy Warhol to Luc Besson’s Fifth Element special effects moldings as well as intriguing instruments and marketing objects. It also presents stunning costumes and drawings.

Costume-wise, the room that completely caught my breath was the Gaumontrama space in which dozens of suspended screens feature films abstracts along arrays of costumes installed on Stockman mannequins. Interestingly I didn’t find any labels for the costumes: I don’t know whether there were any and if I had simply missed them or if it was a voluntary choice. Although, it did upset me at first, I soon appreciated the challenge, realizing how many of these costumes were imprinted in my mind and needn’t any description. It is very difficult to express here the overwhelming feeling I had within this room. Imagine the various screens with their films, each attracting the eye alongside the tumultuous noise – each abstract delivering its own speech – and the fantastic costumes…It was all like a magical spiral, the head turning from so much to observe and hear…An incredible sensation leaving all reality aside and convincingly inviting you in the chimerical world of cinema.  A spectacular way of recreating all the emotions one can experience when watching a film.



I was enthralled by another space called Les Etoiles and imagined by the artist Alain Fleischer who invited visitors to create their very own glamorous casting. With a mirror and playing with spotlights, spectators could make the photographs of legendary actors and actresses appear on the space’s black walls, in a playful and collective manner that clearly mentioned the composite identity of film that mingles the makers and the spectators. Finally, I appreciated the confrontation of Annette Messager’s art works with the Gaumont’s primitive films. Her Histoire de Robes, created in 1990, to express the different events of a woman’s life – a feminist memorabilia – is used here to echo film costumes and their impact on the imagination and how, once taken off from the bodies of the actors or actresses that have worn them, they nonetheless continue to bear the full identity of the character and film they were linked to. They reflect on presence but also absence while they stand as interpretations of memory and personality.

Annette Messager - La Robe Blanche

Annette Messager – La Robe Blanche

120 ans de cinéma is not solely an exhibition about film costumes and, thus it does lack in educating visitors on the making of these costumes and their place within a broader fashion context, it does deliver a dynamic and interactive concept. By juxtaposing film abstracts and still mannequins, the display does invite us to analyse the difference between the costume when it becomes ‘flesh’ thanks to the actor that gives it movement and humanity and the costume as a relic. 

Finally, preparing this post, I had a look at Jill Morena’s post from February 2014, in which she questioned our perception of ready-to-wear like costumes. Well I was glad to discover that the Gaumont exhibition did combine dramatic costumes and ordinary outfits that, obviously, nonetheless carry a character’s identity.


You Should Be Reading: Summer Reading for Fashion Historians

Opportunities for leisure reading seem to be more plentiful in the summertime, whether that’s because you’re involved in academia or find yourself with a free afternoon on a beach or in an airport. I’ve compiled a list of some new releases in fashion literature that are popular and/or well reviewed. What will you be reading this summer? Please let us know in the comments.

1. Chrisman-Campbell, Kimberly. (2015). Fashion Victims: Dress at the Court of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. New Haven: Yale University Press.

This engrossing book chronicles one of the most exciting, controversial, and extravagant periods in the history of fashion: the reign of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette in 18th-century France. Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell offers a carefully researched glimpse into the turbulent era’s sophisticated and largely female-dominated fashion industry, which produced courtly finery as well as promoted a thriving secondhand clothing market outside the royal circle. She discusses in depth the exceptionally imaginative and uninhibited styles of the period immediately before the French Revolution, and also explores fashion’s surprising influence on the course of the Revolution itself. The absorbing narrative demonstrates fashion’s crucial role as a visible and versatile medium for social commentary, and shows the glittering surface of 18th-century high society as well as its seedy underbelly. – From the Publisher

2. Givhan, Robin. (2015). The Battle of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled into the Spotlight and Made History. New York: Flatiron Books.

On November 28, 1973, the world’s social elite gathered at the Palace of Versailles for an international fashion show. By the time the curtain came down on the evening’s spectacle, history had been made and the industry had been forever transformed. This is that story. Pulitzer-Prize winning fashion journalist Robin Givhan offers a lively and meticulously well-researched account of this unique event. The Battle of Versailles is a sharp, engaging cultural history; this intimate examination of a single moment shows us how the world of fashion as we know it came to be. – From the Publisher

3. Cassie Davies-Strodder and Jenny Lister. (2015). London Society Fashion 1905–1925: The Wardrobe of Heather Firbank. London: Victoria & Albert Museum.

Downton Abbey–era fashion is explored through the life and extensive wardrobe of real-life Edwardian London socialite Heather Firbank (1888–1954), whose treasures, bought from the world’s leading couturiers and the very best dressmakers and tailors in London, were gifted to the V&A after her death. The collection forms an invaluable record of a stylish and wealthy woman’s taste from about 1905 to 1920, and actually served as inspiration to Downton Abbey’s Emmy Award–winning costume designer, Susannah Buxton. Beautifully illustrated with new photography of Firbank’s evening gowns, tailored suits, and hats, the book also features contemporary photographs and pages from Firbank’s own fashion cuttings albums. – From the Publisher

4. Przybyszewski, Linda. (2014). The Lost Art of Dress: The Women Who Once Made America Stylish. New York: Basic Books.

In the first half of the twentieth century, a remarkable group of women—the so-called Dress Doctors—taught American women how to stretch each yard of fabric and dress well on a budget. Knowledge not money, they insisted, is the key to timeless fashion. Based in Home Economics departments across the country, the Dress Doctors offered advice on radio shows, at women’s clubs, and in magazines. Millions of young girls read their books in school and at 4-H clothing clubs. As Przybyszewski shows, the Dress Doctors’ concerns weren’t purely superficial: they prized practicality, and empowered women to design and make clothing for both the workplace and the home. They championed skirts that would allow women to move about freely and campaigned against impractical and painful shoes. Armed with the Dress Doctors’ simple design principles—harmony, proportion, balance, rhythm, emphasis—modern American women from all classes could learn to dress for all occasions in a way that made them confident, engaged members of society. – From the Publisher


CFP: Feeding Fashion Energy – New Pathways for Fashion Education

Fashion Colloquia Milano hosted by Domus Academy, Italy

September 21 – 22, 2015

Contributions by June 30, 2015

We are calling for a global conversation that reviews both our former, current and future pathways within fashion education. In particular, we need to identify our strengths, what is effective and valuable.

The themes of food and energy for life are central themes within the Expo World Trade Fair taking place this year in Milan.

This premise seems to naturally move towards the nourishing of energy as a prominent phenomenon in our lives. Fashion is a cultural industry that works as a body in which all organs are contributing to generate the right output.

Our contribution to this global event is to call for an international forum to review fashion education.

The success of fashion globally is indisputable and the constant challenge for us involved in its education is to strive to provide graduates that are able to make effective contributions to this exciting and fast-paced industry.

The richness of this industry, and the opportunities it provides, demands that we offer a dynamic and responsive route to education. Our concern is that perhaps we in fashion education have been guilty of continuing to offer models and teaching formats that remain firmly rooted in the last century of thinking and delivery – the question this observation inspires is: do we need to think creatively and act differently? 

In these circumstances we are calling for a global conversation that reviews both our former, current and future pathways within fashion education. In particular, we need to identify our strengths, what is effective and valuable.

Yet concurrently we must also have the courage to identify our short-comings – where and what we need to improve, We also have to think are some of these issues local or are these broader global issues – and if these are the latter, then how might we help/exchange with other locations to respond to these situations.

Fashion is a global phenomenon and undoubtedly we need to fully consider a coordinated global response.

We argue that the timing of Expo event here in Milan offers us the perfect opportunity to call for contributions to this international review of fashion education. We want to hear the voices of fashion educators from across the globe – so please come to Milan. 

Yet we also feel that we need to open up our forum to voices from outside and beyond academia. Therefore, we would be very interested to hear from other contributions to inspire our thinking (from: students, new graduates, artists, storytellers, industry professionals, media and journalists etc.).

Accordingly, we would like to invite proposals, abstracts, videos (etc.), to contribute to these intensive two days of examination here in Milan.

We want to hear about good practice, new ideas, and challenges for the future. We want people from all types of background, interested in the future of fashion, to contribute – to challenge us and come to Milan and to make a difference for the future of fashion! Timing for presenters will be condensed in 7 minutes plus Q&A please make it strong make it clear!

Please submit your idea here (the deadline will be June 30, 2015 – send your contribution to –

Of course, not everyone might want to present, so if you would rather just attend, then please register at: fashioncolloquiamilan@domusacademy.itstating why you would like to attend and what you feel you will get from this attendance.


Book Review: African Fashion, Global Style

african fashion

It is more often than not that African fashion—an umbrella term that cannot possibly distill the fashion endeavors of every country on this continent into two words—is talked about within the retail marketplace in terms of Western designers and companies that have their pieces made in Africa, often on an artisanal, small scale, with the aim in training men and women in sewing and manufacturing skills. Usually most if not all of the design process is done outside of the African country, and these projects can unintentionally give the impression that no such “modern” fashion infrastructure or business models exist within Africa. Victoria L. Rovine’s well-researched and page-turning study, African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear, aims to seriously complicate this familiar-sounding story.

The opening up of the term of “fashion” to other cultures other than Anglo-European has steadily begun to rise since the 1980s in academic fashion studies. Rovine builds on these studies from the areas of fashion and textiles, art history, and anthropology, and eloquently and clearly argues that African fashion is innovative and dynamic. Even so-called “traditional” forms can change with personal aesthetic motivations, client preferences, and new technologies employed by a designer or maker (Rovine notes that not all in her study identify as “fashion designers”).

Rovine demonstrates through several fascinating case studies that modernity—the restless search for the new so long associated exclusively with Western culture and the colonialist mentality that indigenous cultures are unchanging in contrast—is not simply an aspirational move towards emulating the West and its products and ideals, but can be inward-looking, inspired by the multilayered histories of African countries, as well as influenced by other non-African, non-Western cultures. Fashion does not flow only one way, and it is “a key element of global visual culture” (p. 15). The reader emerges from the study with a firm understanding of how African fashion is a significant conversant in this worldwide dialogue.

Rovine recognizes the vastness of her subject matter and limits her study accordingly. She presents case studies that challenge the notion of the traditional, the modern, and the lines drawn between designers and artists, fashion and seriousness. In addition to looking at embroiderers that practice regional, very specific types of “indigenous fashion”, she explores designers and the fashion scenes in Mali, South Africa, Nigeria and beyond, and describes two types of African designers working in the global and regional fashion arena: those who directly reference the craft and construction of specific styles, histories and localities (even if those traditions are transformed and lose their original meanings), and those who take a more conceptual, less literal approach to expressing the “Africanness” of fashion. Both of these approaches can achieve regional practices with a global strategy (p. 108), and sometimes share design philosophies, such as the recycling of clothing.

This review would be too lengthy if I discussed even a portion of these case studies—they are numerous—but I will attempt to give you an idea of Rovine’s overall trajectory of themes and locations of study.

Chapter 1 is devoted to analyzing two very different types of tunics made in Mali that could initially be perceived as unchanging, “traditional” clothing–tilbis and “Ghana Boy” tunics. The “Ghana boy” is the young, ambitious, secular, brightly colored upstart to the luxury, maturity, piety, and subdued colors of the tilbi. Ghana boy tunics embody the “authenticity of the journey” (p. 41) of a young man from the rural Niger Delta region of Mali to the urban centers of the Gold Coast (Ghana) in the mid to late 20th century. One of many significant points that Rovine makes about the Ghana Boy tunics is that what may first strike one as Western emulation and aspiration (images of bell bottoms, motorcycles, platform shoes, etc.) may be based on exposure to Bollywood films and imagery, “doubly” exotic to a young Malian man—not directly experienced or seen in his country, and with origins outside of Africa or the West. In the Ghana Boy tunics, the global finds local expression.

Ghana boy tunic, from African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear, Indiana University Press, 2015

Ghana boy tunic, from African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear, Indiana University Press, 2015

Tilbis, on the other hand, are very finely made, expensive tunics created by highly skilled embroiderers that signify maturity, wealth, and local Muslim identity. Unlike the usual loud fashion fanfare of the newest, greatest thing, Rovine notes that the subtle changes taking place in tilbi embroidery patterns, inspirations and construction techniques are “fashion innovation[s] that [are] intended to be essentially invisible” (p. 64). Rovine effectively juxtaposes this first chapter with the following second, to show that the processes in the previous chapter are not the “traditional”, unchanging foil to the ever-changing, Western “modern”.

Tilbi and tilbi designs, from African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear, Indiana University Press, 2015

Tilbi and tilbi designs, from African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear, Indiana University Press, 2015

For the second chapter, Rovine shrewdly decides that if you’re going to talk about fashion and Africa, you cannot ignore how designers from the former colonial powers have created imagined African iconography or styles in their work. She frames French fashion conceptions of Africa through the lens of the simultaneous rise of colonial expansion and the system of haute couture in the early 20th century, and colonial expositions of the 1930s. Colonial expositions—seen by the French as a domestic showcase of the colonies’ “civilizing” mission—simultaneously showed new textiles and dress for French inspiration and consumption while excluding urban African designers for more “primitive”, rural forms that conformed to the French idea of the childlike, “uncivilized” nature of Africans. This doubly assured that French designers would not be threatened by African competition for cosmopolitan designs. Throughout the 20th century, French designers such as Yves Saint-Laurent, Paul Poiret, and Jean Paul-Gaultier have created their own “invented Africas” that she points out have remained surprisingly consistent since the 1931 exposition. Decontextualized colorful beading and bold patterns, for example, remain shorthand for “Africa” in Western fashion.

Images of Nancy Cunard and Josephine Baker, from African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear, Indiana University Press, 2015

Images of Nancy Cunard and Josephine Baker, from African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear, Indiana University Press, 2015

Through the juxtaposition of these two chapters, Rovine argues that both French and African designers “sought inspiration beyond the familiar” (p. 71) and looked beyond their borders for new ideas and forms. While Western conceptions of Africa in fashion since the early 20th century can often be romanticized or grossly stereotyped, Rovine demonstrates that, at the same time, “contamination” can be a positive, two-way phenomenon that spurs on creativity and innovation (p. 26). Later on, in Chapters 4 and 5, Rovine also demonstrates how African designers can reinvent Western historical styles or remake used clothing from the West, resulting in disrupting and subverting “colonial time”—the notion that time is one-way, progressive, chronological, and ultimately controlled by exterior forces (p. 160).

Chapter 3 discusses “reinventing local forms”, and how the experience of immigration or separation from the homeland can provide inspiration and bring Africa into sharper focus for some designers.  Although these designers may work abroad or have lived abroad, they do not create an imagined Africa, but an “actual” one. Terms that resurface as inspirations include “authentic”, “heritage”, and “mythic” to name a few, but are very specific in their references to that past (p. 108).

Rovine investigates pioneers of African fashion, including Folashade (Shade) Thomas-Fahm of Nigeria, Pathé Ouédraogo of Burkino Faso, and Chris Seydou of Mali, as well as new designers such as Laduma Ngxokolo (MaXhosa by Laduma).  Ngxokolo designs knit sweaters based on those received by young Xhosa men after going through initiation into adulthood. Instead of the Scottish-made sweaters usually worn, Ngxokolo designs sweaters with local, specific designs modeled after geometric patterns and the bright colors of Xhosa beadwork. One particular sweater literally reads, “My heritage / my inheritance”, and was presented on the runway with the model holding a copy of “The Magic World of the Xhosa”, an anthropology book on the Xhosa that Ngxokolo’s mother would read to him as a child.

Man's sweater by MaXhosa by Laduma, from African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear, Indiana University Press, 2015

Man’s sweater by MaXhosa by Laduma, from African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear, Indiana University Press, 2015

Chapter 4 is dedicated to “Conceptual fashion” that creates “allusions to Africa that do not depend on recognizable stylistic references” (p. 158) and favors “production of meaning over primarily aesthetic concerns”.  Although the previous designers also allude to personal histories and making meaning, in this chapter the designer’s references are very subtle, or are not immediately apparent as “Africanisms”, and move back and forth between Africa and the West.

Designer Sakina M’sa is one of the designers that is a good example of this; her clothing is highly theoretical and embodies a multiplicity of references. While Ngxokolo proclaims his heritage and personal history clearly on the front of his sweater and through props used in a fashion show, M’sa buries her clothing in dirt to get a certain patina, (based on a personal story involving her grandmother’s advice on remaining connected to one’s homeland), or through colors or shapes that make a diverse array of references to working-class laborers in France, the body transformations of Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo, Maasai jewelry and dress, and the artist Yves Klein.

Dress by Sakina M'sa, from African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear, Indiana University Press, 2015

Dress by Sakina M’sa, from African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear, Indiana University Press, 2015

Chapter 5 focuses solely on South Africa, the country with historically the most sophisticated infrastructure for fashion.  The designers highlighted in this chapter demonstrate how the local was brought back into South African fashion (before the 1990s, the popular, mainstream fashion/retail scene largely consisted of imported European designers and “vernacular sportswear”, p. 195), and how the painful histories of apartheid and the promise of transformation can be expressed through clothing and design.  Precedents of such sartorial incisive and political practices include Nelson Mandela’s wearing of a Xhosa cloak at the trial where he was sentenced to prison (the photograph was censored for 30 years).

The South African case studies include the work of Marianne Fassler (whose career spans from the 1970s to the present), Nkhensani Manganyi Nkosi of the brand Stoned Cherrie, and Themba Mngomezulu of the controversially-named brand Darkie, which was intended to “rehabilitate the term without expunging its history, and to transform it into an expression of empowerment” (Mngomezulu later changed it to Dark Icon, which he says made the name “simpler, easier to explain”, especially to non-South Africans) (p. 200, 202).  All of these designers take very different approaches and methods to their design and presentation, including use of local isishweshwe fabric (Fassler), remaking recycled clothing (Mngomezulu), or collaborating with others in the visual and performing arts (Carlo Gibson and Ziemek Pater of Strangelove) to tell complex narratives through clothing.  

Strangelove collaboration with Nelisiwe Xaba, from African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear, Indiana University Press, 2015

Strangelove collaboration with Nelisiwe Xaba, from African Fashion, Global Style: Histories, Innovations, and Ideas You Can Wear, Indiana University Press, 2015

Rovine makes great use of several color, full-page photographs throughout the book; she immediately thanks image owners in the introduction, acknowledging that such images “enable me to tell these garments’ stories so much more vividly” (p. ix). Many these are runway images, which also conveys the dynamism and the high visibility of the clothing, seen through the dominant and iconic mode of fashion presentation and image dissemination worldwide (Rovine also points out the fashion show’s great narrative potential).

On the cover are designer Maimouna Diallo’s boubous (floor-length, dramatic tunics). She is particularly concerned with copying, and usually does not like her work to be photographed. The image is slightly blurred—the models are in motion on a catwalk–and the designs cannot be clearly seen. Personally I would like to have seen more discussion on the notion of copying and replication and its possible outcomes.  After all, the subtitle of the book “ideas you can wear” comes from a tailor’s shop sign in Accra. Copying and worldwide dissemination of designer fashions–for better or worse–is such a huge part of the global fashion market today and is one of the ways that everyone can participate in the latest designer fashions if they so choose. How is this taking place locally and regionally across Africa? What are the benefits for consumers, who can reproduce desired designs on a small scale at a tailor as opposed to consuming mass manufactured goods? What are the detriments for designers and regional industries?  Does local copying hurt or affect their profits or make their designs less desirable to their clientele?

The study concludes with a brief analysis of African fashion magazines with local, regional, and international reach, as well as a discussion of the cultural and political complexities surrounding fashion shows and fashion events.  Rovine here also raises the question of challenges for designers who receive international media attention but are limited to the label of “African designer”.  Several designers expressed frustration with this strict categorization; Stoned Cherrie was even dropped by a South African fashion retailer because its designs were perceived as being “too African” (p. 228-233).   Rovine leaves readers with the important question, “who decides”…”What makes fashion African”? (p. 230).

Despite the layered complexities of her subject, Rovine’s analysis is sophisticated and clear, never convoluted.  Much of Rovine’s study comes out of individual face-to-face interviews with designers within the last 5-10 years, so much of the content is fresh and unique.  This book would be a great introduction to those not at all familiar with African fashion, as well as an excellent read for those already well-versed in Africa’s creative fashion output.

Images provided by the author of this post.