As many schools take steps to guarantee diversity among staff and student body so that classrooms are reflective of society at large, one area of fashion education continues to undermine these efforts yet eludes scrutiny: the fashion illustration curriculum.
The evaluation of fashion illustration has remained unchanged for more than a century. The 9 Heads principle (sometimes known as 10 Heads) taught in the early weeks of sketching class requires that the head fit into the length of the figure 9 times ensuring that an elongated and super slim silhouette is the basis for all design. Students who question the logic behind these proportions are often told it is an idealized form that best shows off the clothes, and those who fail to adhere to these guidelines do not usually pass the class. Authors of popular text books devote dozens of pages to mastering these proportions before proceeding to garment silhouette and details, rendering techniques, or even drawing materials. 9 Heads is Fashion 101. But scholars argue that it subscribes to a white supremacist, sizeist and ableist worldview.
One such scholar is the new dean of fashion at Parsons School of Design, Ben Barry, author of a paper for educators entitled “How to transform fashion education: A manifesto for equity, inclusion and decolonization” in which he describes fashion education as being in a state of emergency. “Our curricula and culture are grounded in the continuing legacies of the transatlantic slave trade and European colonization, which spread a white supremacist, binaristic, ableist and fatphobic worldview and associated practices,” he writes. “Fashion schools have naturalized these exclusionary beliefs about bodies in every facet of their purview, from curricula to faculty hiring to student recruitment, perpetuating the logic of whiteness through the hegemony of European epistemology.”
Schools need a new approach to teaching fashion illustration
The foundational principle of 9 Heads is considered tried and true, learned by faculty members when they were in fashion school ten, twenty, thirty or more years ago, and adjunct educators with one foot in industry and one foot in the classroom have successfully employed it in the workplace throughout their career. But despite being experts in their field, educators now need to humbly accept that their knowledge is overdue for an update. It is no longer acceptable to keep using the tired old syllabus, just updating it with the upcoming semester’s dates and deadlines.
The fashion figure as we have learnt to draw it is an oxymoron of a concept. It is automatically exclusionary of any consumer for it bears only a glancing similarity with the human body. Not even an Amazonian supermodel can boast stats which include being 9 heads tall. You really might as well draw clothes on a giraffe. It is also entirely out of step with society’s ongoing diversity and inclusivity efforts. But as a form of design communication at school and beyond, it is fundamental.
Of further concern is the dominance of white skin tones in the pages of most fashion textbooks. As I flick through one volume that is currently in use in various reputable programs, in its fourth edition and published in 2017 but first released in 1996, I count seven illustrations of black or brown figures among the several hundred figures included to demonstrate silhouette, fabric rendering or poses. A special five-page section of another book is devoted to “rendering racial and ethnic variations” and there we find techniques for capturing Asian, African, Latino features. But the textbooks’ default skin tone is white.
In neither textbook is there a section devoted to drawing the curvier form. Likewise none for addressing the seated figure of a wheelchair user. One has a chapter on drawing menswear but makes no acknowledgement of the blurring of genders now so evident in society and particularly in the youth who represent not only the future of fashion but the generation paying the highest tuition fees ever. Surely the least they can expect from their education is relevance.
Not too long ago, cultural appropriation was a linchpin of fashion inspiration with images of indigenous clothing, tribal embellishments, headdresses pasted on mood boards and in sketchbooks in both Parisian high fashion houses and top global fashion schools. This practice is now universally ridiculed as lazy, exploitative, entitled, an extension of a colonial mindset. But this enlightenment came after years of designers’ public errors and brand shaming, the amplification of minority voices, and deep reflection. Perhaps a similar reckoning is necessary to reconcile fashion illustration teaching with the industry it is intended to serve.
Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry