As she sits across the table from a portrait of Lorenzo Da Ponte, the first professor of Italian at Columbia University, Barbara Faedda prepares to change the direction of the Italian department with her new seminar, Introduction to Fashion Studies.
Faedda is the executive director of the Italian Academy and an adjunct assistant professor in Columbia’s Italian department. This semester, Faedda is teaching Introduction to Fashion Studies—a seminar for undergraduate students—for the very first time. Faedda’s course is currently Columbia’s only undergraduate course dedicated entirely to the study of fashion.
After teaching numerous courses on Italian culture, history, and politics over the past nine years, Faedda noticed that her students most looked forward to the sections on her syllabi that incorporated fashion.
“It was already there, with my very first course, Anthropology of Contemporary Italy, that I started noticing a special interest among students for food and fashion,” Faedda said.
At an institution like Columbia that lacks fashion instruction, Faedda’s seminar has been incredibly popular among students with an interest in the subject; the waitlist for the course well exceeded the enrollment cap.
When Faedda first submitted her course proposal to the Italian department, she had to decide how to structure the syllabus. Faedda had to break down the entire history of fashion in just a few weeks—a large undertaking for a topic so broad. She also had to decide whether to keep her course limited to Italy, where she is from, and which has lectured about before, or to analyze fashion on a global scale.
Faedda decided to deconstruct the syllabus into two main parts. The first half of the course focuses primarily on prehistory and the trajectory of fashion from the ancient world to the Enlightenment. In the second half of the semester, students learn about how fashion relates to specific social themes.
With fashion being such an interdisciplinary field, students have an overwhelming amount of content to cover. In Faedda’s class, students discuss the intersection of fashion with everything from gender to sustainability, art, and technology.
"Last week we were discussing how the two World Wars contributed to the fashion industry,” Faedda said. “There was a lot of technological and scientific research linked to the wars, and new materials were produced. Especially during wars, when you don’t have access to specific materials, you have to be more creative and find some replacement. We were starting to discuss some examples like Burberry, and the fact that the first raincoats were made for the army, not for being fancy and taking a walk on Madison Avenue.”
However, before Faedda began to teach students about the complex history of fashion, she spent time working in and learning about the industry herself.
After graduating from La Sapienza Università di Roma with a focus in cultural anthropology, Faedda worked at the luxury Roman fashion house, Fendi. From 1996 to 1998 she worked directly with the Fendi sisters on production in the Fur Department (although she does not wear furs herself).
“I was fascinated with the manufacturers and the practices of how to deal with these materials,” Faedda said. “The knowledge and skills in working with furs and leathers, and the creativity and know-how of these people working in the labs several hours a day to produce pieces that, even if I don't wear furs, were aesthetically beautiful and very high-quality.”
After spending three years at Fendi, Faedda left the fashion industry and returned to academia. She got her Ph.D. in legal anthropology in Naples, and after conducting Ph.D. research in Boston, Faedda and her family decided to move to the U.S. permanently in 2005. She started working at Columbia in 2006 as an assistant director for the Italian Academy, and began teaching in 2010.
Although Faedda did not remain in the fashion industry, she was incredibly grateful for the experience it gave her. Now, she has found her true passion through academia: teaching, researching, and writing about culture and fashion with firsthand knowledge of the fashion industry.
Faedda’s background in law and anthropology greatly influences how she formulates her syllabi and how she addresses certain cultural issues in fashion. Students in her Introduction to Fashion Studies class come from all over the world and give the course an even more global perspective.
“Being an anthropologist, it is quite impossible not to consider issues in a very dimensional, global perspective,” Faedda said. “We [anthropologists] are trained to consider diversity and otherness, and deal with that as a first step of our research. My anthropological background is at the basis of my teaching.”
However, not everyone at Columbia shares Faedda’s views about the interdisciplinary nature of fashion. At Columbia, and outside of the University, some scholars, academics, and communities are still reluctant to view fashion as an important issue affecting politics, the economy, and religion.
"What I really like about this group of students is that most of them came to my first class already aware of the complexity and the importance of fashion studies as a very serious academic field, compared to some conservative ideas in the University and academia that fashion studies and food studies are not super distinguished fields,” Faedda said.
Despite the critics, Faedda does not feel the need to justify fashion studies to people who do not understand its importance. Instead, she focuses on relevant issues that she can work to solve. Specifically, she is interested in preventing cultural appropriation and making fashion more sustainable.
Faedda hopes to continue teaching courses on fashion as long as she sees demand from students. She also hopes to host conferences and panel discussions relating to cultural appropriation in fashion and fashion’s impact on the environment. On a lighter note, you can also sometimes find her defending the Met’s fashion exhibits.
"I always run to the Met every time there is a big show, and I'm always ready to fight with the most conservative scholars or general people who are sometimes not happy to see Dolce and Gabbana close to a medieval sculpture,” Faedda said.
For now, she continues to combine her passion for research, fashion, and culture by providing fashion instruction on a campus that has not historically made space for it.