Fashion and the Humanities: Exploring New Angles

by Rizvana Bradley

I am currently completing my sixth year of Ph.D. work in the Literature Program at Duke University, and am working to develop a variety of critical approaches to theorizing fashion and the body. I have taught courses at Duke that are intended to enable students to recognize how various literary, filmic and artistic texts continue to richly shape fashion culture, and highlight the complex theoretical and social issues contemporary fashion thematizes.

Having greatly admired the academic work coming out of Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, I was excited to introduce students at Duke to the field now referred to as critical fashion studies. Initially I was at a loss as to how to design such a course, as some four years ago there was nothing like the CSM model being taught in US universities. Typically courses would mention fashion incidentally, or as an object of inquiry. With respect to the latter approach, fashion is constructed either purely as an anthropological object, proposing an analysis of historical dress, or as a sociological phenomenon, providing a detailed account of subcultural styles, for example. I knew that content-wise, the course I wanted to develop would incorporate the best of these strategies, but be less a fashion history course. I was most interested in concentrating on aesthetics, and spotlighting the visionary photography and runway productions happening in fashion since the late 1980s.

From the start it was evident that students had little exposure to an international fashion culture, the richness and eclecticism of various fashion figures, image-makers, entrepreneurs and designers. The courses challenged them to think about designers’ creative efforts in refreshing new ways. The first course, “Contemporary Fashion: Image, Object, Idea,” I taught once. I then taught a course entitled, “Fashion, Literature and the Avant-Garde,” twice. The final course, “Art, Media and the Body,” placed fashion in dialogue with the contemporary arts more broadly. All of these courses include fashion in the context of discussions about contemporary artistic practices that are currently provoking key concerns in the humanities, specifically questions of discourse, identity, representation and subjectivity, as well as certain questions about aesthetics, materiality and difference. Students learn that some of the most innovative fashion designers explore these themes in complex, beautiful and challenging ways. For this reason, the readings for the courses draw from different disciplines, among them, philosophy, critical theory, science studies, and feminist theory.

Hussein Chalayan, Vogue, December 2008

Fashion does not exist in a vacuum, but is an art form that reflects socio-cultural mores, fears, anxieties and desires. Students are incredibly responsive to the visual material, and are required to analyze various collections by looking at detailed shots of garments, videos of runway shows, and interviews with designers. Key contemporary designers are examined against a backdrop of critical theory, feminist thought, history and philosophy. Students learn to approach fashion design with a critical (sometimes skeptical) eye and interpret the spectacle of a runway show or photographic image by relating the garments on models to such themes as trauma, modernity, gender, death and technology.

Collectively as a class, we explore the idea that the spirit of the avant-garde in fashion, runs parallel to the spirit of the artistic avant-garde in many ways, chief among them a resistance to representation, evident in a general turn toward abstraction. Increasingly fashion is partially turning away from the literal, from the tangible, and towards the ephemeral, the emotive and the affective. Students are encouraged to use a range of philosophical and critical themes to question the normative body, the virtual and figural construction of the body in time and space, and the bodily production of affect and sensation.

Studying designers as theatrical as John Galliano and Alexander McQueen, with the minimalist sensibilities of Yohji Yamamoto and Rick Owens, the different body experiments of Gareth Pugh and Walter van Beirendonck, and technological innovations of Hussein Chalayan, students were able to draw their own conclusions about today’s design practitioners, who seem to not only be working and making, but also thinking at the fringes of disciplines and design philosophies in order to expand the cultural scope of fashion today.