Taking Western fashion out of the spotlight

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By Tyler Griffin

As a promising scholar of colour in the graduate fashion studies program at Parsons School of Design in New York, Kim Jenkins noticed a shortage of resources that explored fashion history and design practices outside  the Western canon—only a small part of what fashion looks like internationally. She struggled to find research critically examining what influences the clothes we wear, and how that connects to our individual cultures and backgrounds. Now a professor at Parsons and Pratt Institute in New York, Jenkins has taken it upon herself to expand the narrative and decentralize fashion education. Creating resources for educators who are not fully equipped to teach fashion outside of the Western lens was her first objective.

Jenkins announced her Fashion and Race Database Project, an open-source platform for research and tools that challenge misrepresentation in fashion. For example, it includes a glossary that defines objects outside of the dominantly European fashion canon. 

The database is a project made especially for fashion students and enthusiasts that have been marginalized, including fashion students of colour, Jenkins said.

Teachers and academics at Ryerson are following suit, working to facilitate social change and find tangible solutions to the residual effects of colonialism in fashion. They’ve started by creating a fashion curriculum that better reflects the lived experiences of marginalized students.

“[They] have all been thinking about these issues or affected by these issues, but weren’t really seeing someone trying to remedy the issue,” said Jenkins.

Traditionally, fashion curricula in Canada have focused on Eurocentric dress and design practices, creating a fashion education landscape lacking in diverse perspectives. Jenkins said that, as they follow students into the industry, these narratives contribute to a narrow-minded, Westernized view of what is deemed fashionable. “Our representation in fashion is only as good as our education,” she added.

 Since his appointment as Chair of Fashion at Ryerson, Ben Barry has made it his mandate to decentralize Western perspectives in the curriculum by examining which stories are being taught, and which are being left out. Just as fashion creates boundaries around race, sex and gender, Barry believes the industry also holds the power to question, disrupt and transcend them—and it starts with fashion students.

Traditionally, fashion curricula in Canada have focused on Eurocentric dress and design practices

“Because [the industry] has done such harm, it’s also in the perfect position to remedy and rectify that,” said Barry. “I think the next generation of fashion creatives have such an important role in creating an industry that is inclusive.”

In Monica Miller’s book Slaves to Fashion, she discusses the significance of clothes in relation to freed Black slaves in the United States who tried to wear fashionable garments to emulate the dress of white slave masters. Miller writes about whites passing sumptuary laws that “forbade Black extravagance,” designed to create a social barrier to citizenship and belonging for Black people. If they violated such laws, Black men were often punished by means of gender humiliation or sexual humiliation and forced to wear female clothing.

In her fashion and race class, Jenkins teaches her students about illustrations seen in gazettes in the 19th century which display Black people as animalistic, dressed up in Western garments. “It’s kind of saying, ‘look at this ape-like creature trying to wear garments like us. They never will, it’s grotesque,’” Jenkins explained. “People knew that was a great way to try to hinder progress for Black communities.”

Barry is also addressing issues of equity in fashion by implementing a course that centers around the stories and design practices of trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming people. 

“The gender binary is a manifestation of West-colonialism,” Barry said. “Many societies beyond white, Western society believed in gender that did not obey according to a binary. Yet we have a fashion history that reinforces that binary every day through the way it produces markets and sells clothing.” 

Ryerson appointed Angela DeMontigny as the School of Fashion’s designer-in-residence in October 2018 in an effort to decolonize their fashion curriculum. DeMontigny is an internationally renowned Cree-Métis designer who incorporates aspects of her Indigenous heritage into her designs. Her fall collection, “Of The Stars,” is inspired by the relationship Indigenous people have with constellations and the night sky. She will be working with Ryerson fashion students, encouraging them to pull inspiration from their own cultures.

“I’m happy to see it’s not just tokenism”

“If you’re coming from an ethnic background that isn’t really celebrated or you’re being true to yourself, it’s a really hard road,” said DeMontigny. “For some reason, if it’s truly authentic from that culture, it doesn’t seem to have much cache in the fashion world.”

“I’m happy to see it’s not just tokenism,” she said. “I’m trying to explain to the students, this is where authenticity comes from.”

Moving past empty gestures and meaningless equity statements is something Barry has been trying to teach his students. He encourages them to ask critical questions about how the clothing is made and to look not just at who is on the runway, but who is behind it. 

Jenkins said that regardless of whether people are willingly engaging in the conversation or are feeling forced to, it’s a step in the right direction if the broader audience is acknowledging that we have issues with systemic oppression.

“We can refine the conversation more moving forward, and address the nuances there,” said Jenkins. “With scholars and other knowledgeable figures there to help facilitate these things, I think we’ll be moving in the right direction.”

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