At Columbia, Fashion Instruction Exists in Pockets
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Written by Isabela Espadas Barros Leal

Edited by Candy Chan, Lyric Bodwitch

Art by Brenda Huang

If you stop and ask yourself what fashion is, chances are you’ll think of clothes. What starts as a superficial understanding of the sartorial choices we make every morning quickly expands to include the many ways in which these choices reflect some greater truth about our shared human experiences. Garments are legible. Fashion reflects personal ambitions, advancements in craftsmanship and technology, and reactions to political and current events surrounding us at any given moment.

It is difficult to talk about fashion without talking about New York City. New York Fashion Week is one of the “big four” fashion weeks worldwide, up there with Paris, Milan, and London. The City is also home to headquarters for some of the most renowned fashion houses across the globe, including Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, and Marc Jacobs. The fashion world and the world of New York City exist within and of each other.

Courtney Lyons, a sophomore at Barnard, came to New York City for college specifically to pursue a career in fashion after graduation. Lyons chose Barnard because, even though the College does not offer a fashion major, she saw the value of a liberal arts education that would allow her to explore her love of fashion in the context of an array of other disciplines. But she wishes the College offered more academic opportunities to engage with the local industry: “I think it’s a disadvantage [to be at Barnard] if you’re interested in fashion.”

Like Lyons, many students interested in learning about fashion while at Columbia are frustrated that the University does not offer more opportunities to do so. Channels to engage with fashion academically exist in pockets spread across campus, but these neglect to facilitate engagement between students and the fashion industry in the city.

Lyons arrived on campus with an eye out for any and all opportunities that might immerse her in the industry. During her freshman year, she attended “Fashion at Barnard,” a day-long event featuring alumnae and panelists who now work in the fashion industry. During the event, she heard from an alumna who wrote her senior thesis on the history of denim prior to starting work in the industry. Since Lyons herself had been looking for majors where she could integrate her love of fashion, this interaction inspired her to declare a major in History as well. To further engage with fashion on campus, Lyons joined the Blog Cohort of Hoot Magazine—Columbia’s largest undergraduate fashion magazine.

Every semester since arriving at Barnard, Lyons has searched the word “fashion” in the course directory, drawing limited results time and time again. The only class open for enrollment this semester was Culture of Italian Fashion, taught by Barbara Faedda, associate director of the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies. This was her first opportunity to take a fashion course at Columbia, and Lyons eagerly registered for it. The inflection of her voice as she recounts a salient moment from Faeda’s first lecture is both unwavering and utterly enthusiastic. “For the longest time, people associated earthly things with being less important and frivolous, things associated with the body rather than the mind. That kind of trickled into academia,” Lyons recalls. “The history of clothes is so underdeveloped, especially at large research institutions.”

Though the class has been a highlight of her academic experience at Columbia so far, Lyons has been left wondering whether she has exhausted her outlets for exploring her interest on campus.

Since its inception in 2017, Faedda’s seminar has aimed to explore the ways fashion intersects with tradition, globalization, and identity through the lens of contemporary Italy. When she first joined Columbia in 2010, Faedda offered a course in the Italian department called Anthropology of Contemporary Italy. She devoted several weeks of the course to content categorized as “Made in Italy,” such as food, fashion, and design. Noticing that some students only took the course for this portion of the syllabus, Faedda launched a course by that name and followed that with Culture of Italian Fashion.

In lieu of learning about fashion in the classroom, students have turned to clubs and internships to gain invaluable preprofessional experience. For those interested in clothes making, sewing machines and an embroidery machine are now available at Barnard’s new Design Center located at the Milsten Center. These were intentionally brought in to complement the existing resources found at the Columbia MakerSpace.

“There’s a very strong extracurricular interest in [fashion],” says Anne Higonnet, an art history professor at Barnard. “Hoot Magazine and the Barnard Bulletin are wonderful student publications, and they show a very contemporary, self confident, [and] feminist approach to clothing. There’s nothing in the curriculum that corresponds to that, or supports it.”

I discuss the matter with Higonnet, and ask what’s been holding the College back from offering more fashion courses to students. “I don’t know,” she tells me, candidly, before continuing. “I would say that some people from the right would say that it’s too trivial a topic, and some people on the left would say there’s a danger that it will objectify women.” Higonnet points to gender as a potentially critical reason that Barnard has been apprehensive toward the subject. “Women can be afraid of being branded as overly feminine,” she explains, “It takes a lot of self confidence to say, ‘I know you believe this topic is feminine, but I see its importance nonetheless.’”

Seemingly in contradiction to the lack of emphasis placed on the topic at the undergraduate level, it’s worth noting that the Barnard pre-college program has attempted to explore the intersection of fashion and gender in a four week course called Is Fashion Frivolous? Exploring Gender, Culture and Politics Through Clothing. The course is categorized as a political science offering and is taught by Jill Di Donato, who graduated from Barnard in 1999 and the School of the Arts in 2006 and is now a professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

Recalling Lyons’ anecdote from Faedda’s first seminar, I ask Di Donato whether she, too, is under the impression that institutions of higher education may believe the study of fashion to be frivolous.

“I hope not,” she responds. Di Donato warns that it would be harmful for institutions of higher learning to have a bias against fashion, especially if it’s because they believe it’s “not feminist” or unempowering. Di Donato describes that view on fashion as “archaic.” Rather, she believes fashion is a gateway to robust theoretical inquiry. Failing to explore fashion as an academic pursuit is “a missed opportunity to get a snapshot of what’s going on within a culture, because fashion provides such an immediate snapshot of what’s going on,” she says.

Searching the keyword “fashion” in the 2018-19 course directory yields nine results. Culture of Italian Fashion and Consumer Culture in Modern Europe are the top two. Following these are two art history courses, four engineering classes, and one comparative literature course—all of which are using “fashion” as a synonym for “manner of,” rather than referring to the industry. For graduate students, the Columbia Business School’s Retail & Luxury Goods Club recommends a curriculum of courses that includes Retailing Leadership and NYC Immersion Seminar: Luxury Brands, which are exclusively available for Business School students and do not appear under the word “fashion” in the directory.

For undergraduates, the bulk of fashion offerings have been concentrated in the Barnard history department.

Starting in 1994, Lisa Tiersten, the Ann Olin professor of history at Barnard, began offering Consuming Passions: Gender, Class and the Culture of Consumption in France and England, 1830 to the Present—which is now titled Consumer Culture in Modern Europe. The course explores “feminine fashion” and the identity of the woman as consumer through materials including fashion magazines. In 2009, more than a decade later, chair of the history department Dorothy Ko debuted a second course—Fashion—that has since been discontinued. The 2014-15 course catalog included yet another Barnard history class, called Fashion in China, but did not list a professor. (Ko did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this article.)

For Shaquan Nelson, a senior at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, this missed opportunity lies outside the realm of the liberal arts. “I think [Columbia] owes it to their students [to offer fashion]. Engineers can make clothes just as well, and they should support that avenue because we could use New York [as a resource],” he explains.

With the tools available at the MakerSpace, Nelson started his own successful design label called Strange Fruit. He has found the MakerSpace to be a sufficient facility to explore fashion design, but feels that SEAS should tackle the intersection between fashion and engineering even more ambitiously. “I just don’t understand why [SEAS] doesn’t focus on design,” he says. “They think it’s not math and science-related when it really is. Design is something that you learn through iteration, and all other SEAS classes are also iterative.”

Eugenia Hernandez, a junior at SEAS and co-founder of the Columbia University Fashion Society, agrees that SEAS has the potential to facilitate conversation between fashion and engineering on campus, but she feels that the MakerSpace is falling behind. She notes that although sewing machines are important ways to bring fashion into the space, students should be encouraged to use tools like 3D printers to help solve pressing issues of sustainability that plague the fashion industry.

Columbia has not yet taken hold of fashion as the powerful local industry it is—but other institutions have. An example can be found upstate, at Cornell’s Fiber Science and Apparel Design department within its College of Human Ecology. There, students can obtain a Bachelor of Science in fashion design, fashion design management, or fiber science. At the graduate level, M.A. and Ph.D. programs in apparel design and fiber science are also available. Undergraduates can additionally opt to minor in either fiber science or fashion studies.

The program’s success is evident in its outcomes. Recently, two Cornell seniors—Grace Lawson and Mary Louise DuBose—were finalists in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute’s annual College Fashion Design competition. Columbia students have won no such recognition, despite studying mere blocks from the institute.

Cornell describes its department as “a multidisciplinary program with expertise at the nexus of creative expression and scientific research resulting in real-world applications.” This kind of multidisciplinary approach is what many Columbia students crave to see our University offer—one that combines theoretical inquiry with design to help them achieve their personal, academic, and professional aspirations.

Though Lawson has achieved success in Cornell’s program, she also acknowledges its imperfections. “It is hard because we’re in Ithaca,” she explains. “We’re not able to get as many speakers who are willing to come and network with us. We definitely are challenged in that sense.”

Her thoughts stand in striking contrast to how Hernandez speaks about bringing speakers to Columbia for CUFS panels. “Columbia could stand out among Ivies because it’s in New York City,” says Hernandez. “When we look for speakers [for CUFS], people are just honored to come to Columbia to talk about their career.”

But the fact remains that, while Columbia could apply its resources, inquiry, and relationship with the city to fashion, multiple neighboring institutions have moulded their identities around traditions of excellence in the discipline. “We are in New York City, where there is Parsons [School of Design], FIT, and NYU; sometimes it’s not the best choice to offer the 10th or 12th option in the same city,” says Faedda. “There is the risk of dispersing resources. I don’t know if this is what Columbia thinks today.”

In its mission statement, Columbia urges students to directly interact with New York City as part of their academic experience.This is reflected by the Core Curriculum; courses such as Art Humanities mandate field trips to local art museums and Music Humanities requires students to attend performances.

At Barnard, the 2016 launch of the Foundations curriculum introduced a new “Modes of Thinking” requirement: “Thinking Locally- New York City.” The requirement obliges students to take courses that will help them “better understand the significance of local context”—such as Dance in New York City, and Arts & Humanities in the City. Though fashion is one of New York City’s most distinctive industries, no course on the subject has ever satisfied the requirement.

For Hernandez, who describes fashion and math as equally important parts of her identity, the multiplicity of student interests that fashion is included among is a reflection of the kind of student who is attracted to Columbia to begin with.

“Even within the [CUFS] board we have engineering majors, economics, neuroscience, and visual arts,” she says. “When you talk to people at our general body meetings or events, they all have such different backgrounds. Everyone at Columbia has interests in a lot of things, and it seems that one of them happens to be fashion.”

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