Weaving together textiles in Homer’s “Iliad” and the style of YouTube influencer Emma Chamberlain, Barnard professor of art history Anne Higonnet’s study of fashion transcends time and space. Her new course Clothing offers a historical survey of what we wear, meeting the longtime student demand for fashion course offerings.
While getting to know the fashion community at Columbia, Higonnet began to wonder why Columbia and Barnard offered no courses on clothing despite widespread student interest. This demand—along with her lectures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Heavenly Bodies” fashion exhibit and the original costumes at the Met’s “Dangerous Liaisons” exhibit—reminded her of her passion for clothing history.
“Clothing is important to study because it’s something every single person on the planet does,” Higonnet said. “It’s one of the things that most fundamentally makes us human. To me, it’s a core humanities topic. And why should we study the humanities? In order to understand what makes us human.”
Higonnet has taught courses on subjects ranging from impressionism to the French Revolution to 18th-century period rooms at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but until this semester, she had never taught a course specifically on clothing history despite her former dream of becoming a historical costume designer.
Clothing encapsulates multiple time periods and locations in its syllabus. It covers textiles in the “Iliad,” assesses historical European fashion, and analyzes how the industrialization of clothing changed world power dynamics. It also covers broad themes like sustainability, industrialization and the economy, and the ways in which clothing affects memories of ourselves and our loved ones.
As Higonnet discovered, creating a course on the history of clothing was not an easy endeavor; she said she worried that the course would quickly become too technical if its focus was too narrow. At the same time, the interdisciplinary nature of the study of fashion means there is too much to cover in an introductory course, which Higonnet cited as a major reason why fashion course offerings are often lackluster.
“You don’t want to give a student an education whose shelf-life is going to expire 10 minutes after graduation. You want to give them something that’s really going to stick with them for their whole lives … but on the other hand, you’ve also got to balance that all the time with what [it is] the students sense about their world,” Higonnet said.
While Higonnet was on sabbatical last year, she used some of her time away from teaching to research clothing’s intersection with disciplines like sociology, psychology, anthropology, sustainability studies, and the history of literature. From there, she selected readings and crafted a detailed yet interdisciplinary syllabus while staying true to her students' interests.
Higonnet originally expected the class roster to consist only of around 25 students, but enrollment for her course now exceeds 150. Higonnet posits that some of that curiosity stems from the course’s ties to broader social topics.
“My offhand guess is that almost every single student in the clothing course has thought about the question of sustainability, and every single student in the course has asked themselves a gender question, too. Is clothing something that objectifies women? Is it something that really taps into women’s deep creativity? Or is it a complicated combination of the two? If you know that students are like that, it’s way more tempting to teach a course on clothing,” Higonnet said.
Aside from the interdisciplinary nature of clothing history, Higonnet also attributes the lack of fashion education on campus to the specific craft and trade that fashion studies require.
“In general, at a super high-powered school like Columbia or Barnard, even in the [School of the Arts,] where artists are becoming increasingly interested in fiber arts and in alternative media, craft is a very taboo thing,” Higonnet said.
Higonnet compared the craft of a fashion student with the craft of an athlete. Unlike athletes, there are no students recruited to Columbia to pursue fashion crafts. However, with the fashion market being one of the largest in the world, Higonnet questioned whether this justifies the absence of fashion courses at Columbia.
“We don’t want Columbia and Barnard to become trade schools; that’s not what they are. I wouldn’t want them to become that,” Higonnet said. “But every responsible college and university wants their students to go out onto the job market with the most confidence and the most intellectual skills that they can get. I hope that a clothing course will help students in future careers.”
Outside of teaching Clothing, Higonnet is working on multiple projects. She recently led a project called “Style Revolution: Journal des Dames et des Modes,” in which she and a group of graduate students uncovered and digitized a rare collection of French Revolution-era fashion plates from the Morgan Library & Museum. Now, she is writing a book based on findings from this project.
While Higonnet’s relatively experimental course has many students on its roster, she cannot be sure if this course will be offered again in the future. For Higonnet, it all depends on student input, interest, and demand.
“It all depends on whether students are happy with it. In general, for me not to teach in a way that my students are tending is pointless,” Higonnet said. “Part of the whole joy of teaching is to keep on adapting to what students are interested in and entering into their perspective on the world.”