Bringing discussions of identity, representation and appropriation into fashion studies, Kimberly Jenkins says designers need to better understand customers’ interest in the meaning of their clothes. By Alyx Gorman.

Meaning in fashion

Kimberly Jenkins.
Kimberly Jenkins.
Credit: Kimberly Jenkins

Fashion is changing. The industry’s corporate and creative sides have always worked hand in glove to innovate, provoke desire and ultimately move product. At fashion school, students are taught to consider consumers’ aesthetic concerns – from good fit to novel design – and their spending behaviours. Less attention has been paid to the meaning behind those choices – how consumers think and feel about the clothes they wear.

Now, thanks to social media, the fashion industry is able to gather vast amounts of qualitative data about their customers’ tastes, interests and habits. Consumers have a voice. Whether they’re calling out cultural appropriation, demanding more diversity on the runway or boycotting brands that work with known sexual harassers, their voice states one thing loudly: meaning matters.

Kimberly Jenkins is at the forefront of a movement to explore that meaning. The New York-based academic is a visiting assistant professor at Pratt Institute and part-time lecturer at Parsons School of Design. In 2011, she joined a small cohort of historians, anthropologists and sociologists who’ve graduated from Parsons’ just-established fashion studies master of arts program. Hers was only the second group to do so.

Parsons, a college of The New School in New York, is one of the most influential fashion schools in the world. Before the fashion studies master’s was established, its graduate programs had been devoted largely to the business or practice of design. “I liked the idea that it was just so open-ended and so nascent. It allowed a space to kind of help shape it, advance it,” Jenkins explains of the course. “They didn’t really have answers for you in terms of career, what you could do with it. I majored in anthropology and art history, and it was the perfect degree because I love fashion but I wanted this whole perspective. I wanted to know about cultures and identity construction.”

Jenkins started teaching shortly after graduation, first at Pratt and then at Parsons. In 2016, she developed a groundbreaking undergraduate course, Fashion and Race, at Parsons, which she is teaching for the third time this autumn. This year, the course earned her a commencement award from The New School, for outstanding achievements in diversity and social justice teaching.

The course draws on the work of a range of academics, from foundational cultural theorist Stuart Hall to English professor Anne Cheng, who wrote The Melancholy of Race. “I had to do all of this sort of collecting and organising out of all of these different fields …” Jenkins says. “It’s not that there haven’t been writers who have addressed fashion and race.” But the work was scattered across women’s studies, art history, African–American studies and more. “I ask, where are they talking about dress and fashion and black bodies, and white bodies, and all the bodies? And make sense of it, and put it together into some sort of cohesive syllabus for students ... Every semester that I teach it, I learn more because I’m seeing how important it is to the students, how they’re responding to it and how they feel this has been missing in the curriculum. And also that this is something that is advancing the field. It’s something that we all need to know about.”

While these concepts might be familiar to humanities students, for vocation-focused fashion designers the discussions have been more eye-opening. “I teach a class at Pratt called Contextualising Fashion … Every semester when the students learn they have to take this class, they are thinking on the first day of class, ‘What is this going to be about?’ [I’ll ask them], have you ever considered that dress is a key component to how we construct our gender identity? Or how ... clothing can incriminate someone? The example I use is the hoodie. I ask the students to reflect upon the fact that depending on the body within that hoodie, it could be a matter of life or death. It could be Mark Zuckerberg or it could be Trayvon Martin.”

Fashion students aren’t the only ones who are benefiting from Jenkins’ research. She also works with Harvard historian Jonathan Michael Square to run a public workshop called Fashion and Justice, which has been hosted in New York and Austin, Texas, with a Harvard version to come. “It was something where we didn’t really ask for permission ... It’s become this travelling show. It helped us realise what’s possible. This is a nascent field where you can just create your own thing. You can’t wait for someone to encourage you to do something or for them to create that space for you – you just do it.”

Jenkins and her fellow fashion studies graduates took a similar approach when founding the interdisciplinary Fashion Studies Journal, which has been publishing since 2012. “It’s sort of like a little bit of a magazine and an academic journal – we’re trying to make it more accessible and help people in our community.” The FSJ is a space for scholarly experimentation, outside the rigid structures of peer-reviewed journals such as the International Journal of Fashion Studies or Fashion Theory.

These activities, along with the curation of public- and industry-facing panel discussions, have led Jenkins to call herself “kind of a bad academic. I always knew I wanted to do more public-based work”.

Many of the fields Jenkins draws on in her courses did not always have a comfortable home in academia, either. Women’s studies, for instance, evolved informally through workshops, journals and reading groups. It took protests, petitions and other forms of collective action by students and faculty members to get these courses onto the curriculum.

Jenkins sees tension within her own school. “They’re like two different silos. We’re both invested in educating our fashion students, but there is a ... divide between the theory department and the history department profession, and the design department. We have tried to reach across the aisles ... but there’s still, many of the faculty, who are just teaching design ... not about history, not about theory. And history does have some importance. You see the industry giving a nod to history, but it’s a harder sell with theory because it just seems so abstract.”

Jenkins is also keen to reach across the divide between theory and industry. “I’ve been trying to kind of let these industry professionals know … there is a value to thinking critically about fashion or doing that work in fashion studies.”

Lately, they’ve started listening. She points to Teen Vogue as a publication that has tackled the “hot potato” of fashion and race. “It just takes this courageous person to do it, and then everyone starts talking about it.” She also points to the Instagram account Diet Prada, which calls out copycat fashion design, as an example of fashion studies gone populist. “Academics like myself love it because they’re doing their research. They’re doing their homework, and I
use it as a teaching tool.”

Jenkins is African American, but she notes most of her students are white. “And when we talk about maybe problematic imagery, or when we’re talking about power and representation in fashion, they immediately pick up on these concepts of intersectionality ... I think it’s complete BS when journalists, or editors … or people working in the fashion industry feel they don’t want to lead these conversations because they feel people aren’t ready for it – they’re absolutely ready for it. We have teenagers ready for it. My students are ready for it.

“I want to tell the fashion industry – just you wait. These students are coming for you. They get it. They’re not satisfied with what they’re seeing with labour conditions. They’re not satisfied with what they’re seeing as representation … They’re tired of the people who they’re seeing in positions of leadership and their tired ideas, these outdated ideas.”

Customers are demanding changes in the way the fashion industry addresses meaning in their products and their practices. In the future, if you notice those changes becoming more prevalent, it might be that graduates of classes such as Jenkins’ are starting to make their mark.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 12, 2018 as "Dressed for assess".

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