New Paths In Fashion Research: FIT’s 31st Symposium 

MFIT's denim exhibit in the entrance of the school./Amira Turner

By Amira Turner and Rami Mansi

 

  On April 5, The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (MFIT) hosted the MFIT 31st Symposium, “New Directions in Fashion Research” at the Katie Murphy Amphitheater. The symposium focused on new areas of research, which included creating more inclusive equity within fashion and exploring the histories of fashion ideals. 

   The event started with a welcoming address by FIT president Dr. Joyce Brown and the director of MFIT, Dr. Valerie Steele. In their opening remarks, they explained that fashion and research reflect one another in the current era. 

   “No longer our fashion study is just an extension of art or design history,” Dr. Steele said. “Instead, exhibits and research today approach fashion as a part and a reflection of the era’s cultures.” 

   The first showcase of studies was by Colleen Hill, curator of costume and accessories at MFIT, who discussed her Ph.D. studies on “Cabinets of Curiosities.” These “cabinets” were defined as private collections, mainly by rich, white men, that withheld peculiar objects from animals’ skulls to everyday discoveries such as seashells. These items were accumulated over time, and became the precursors to museums. Such cabinets had great effects on fashion research, as many fashion houses began their archival research cognisant of similar practices and physicalities as Cabinets of Curiosities. 

   “My approach to this topic needed to demonstrate how curatorial practice can act as a form of research in its own right,” Hill said.

   Next in the symposium was speaker Natalie Khan, the director of “Culture, Criticism, and Curation” at Central Saint Martins, who told The Vanguard her experience with the processes of runway walks and consumerism’s relationship with fast fashion. Khan spoke about fashion designer Niko’s design of her runway look, where a logo shirt of “REEBOK” was dismantled to show the words “BEE OK,” a suggestive nod to consumerism’s hyperfocus on logos and materialism. 

   “[Niko] reassembles images and letters to dismantle the icons of corporate power and to subvert and block the ideology which underpins cultural imperialism,” Khan said. “A runway becomes a space for which such activities can be explored. And fashion is situated within these spaces. So, the model’s embodied experience is said within the set, special practices of the runway show.” 

   The symposium continued with a presentation from Parsons School of Design dean Ben Barry on the importance of equity, inclusion, and decolonization in fashion education. 

   Barry explored how fashion education institutions can act as sites of vast knowledge, but they often function as gatekeepers to that knowledge. He discussed educational institutions’ attempts to challenge their exclusionary histories through mission statements, particularly after the international protests sparked by the death of George Floyd in 2020. 

   “These [mission statements] were met with hurt and rightful skepticism. Students, alumni, and staff demands were awakened about harmful practices and the changes needed to correct them,” Barry said. 

   Barry provided a series of tools he had put in place as the dean to promote more equitable values. These tools included reworking hiring processes to provide more job opportunities for Indigenous educators.

   “[Fashion educators] must enter Indigenous knowledge and practices in our teaching as part of this process. The student wouldn’t study in France without learning about French fashion history, culture, and practices,” he said. “Similarly, a fashion student must learn about the ongoing histories, cultures, and practices of indigenous fashion.”

   Barry’s presentation was followed by dress and textile historian Hillary Davidson’s talk on fashion reconstruction and the role emerging technology had in its evolution. Davidson’s work in historical fashion reconstruction focuses on accurately recreating historical garments into fully functional pieces that can be worn. Davidson emphasized the importance of historical fashion reconstruction in understanding the people who wore historical garments, and the people who made them. 

   “Reconstructing fabric and textile objects can help recognize the skills and cultural values they maintain a new, complex, and excitingly challenging ways in the past, who was civilized and who had a voice worth listening to,” Davidson said.  

   Davidson shared examples of garments she has worked to digitally restore using Computer Aided Design software, also known as CAD. CAD allowed Davidson to create fully three-dimensional, moveable models of 19th-century garment patterns that had previously only been seen one-dimensionally. 

   “New Directions in Fashion Research” is one of many symposiums at FIT, and the university will continue to lead research in order to pioneer the fashion industry. 

    “We know that fashion can capture a moment,” said Dr. Steele. “But through various and vigorous research and careful study, it can also help to tell our history as well.” 

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