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The educational edge of fashion schools with onsite museums

By Jackie Mallon

Dec 6, 2019

A top spot on school rankings lists, qualified faculty, study abroad opportunities, a high graduate employment rate, are all by now goals of the modern prestigious fashion school. But scattered throughout the country are institutions with an extra attribute, a little-mentioned jewel in their crown. These bastians of learning can boast of an inner temple for those seeking ultimate fashion enlightenment: the on-campus fashion museum.

The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the University of Texas, Louisiana State University, University of Rhode Island, and Philadelphia’s Drexel University are a handful of institutions which have assembled collections of costume and textiles to present students with a portal into history. Through a changing calendar of exhibitions they offer new ways of exploring the subject of dress, provoking deeper student engagement with fashion beyond mere the of-the-moment hyped trends, or corporate dominance of the industry, or its celebrity associations.

SCAD FASH at Savannah College of Art and Design bills itself as the first fashion and film museum, a natural fit considering the growing significance of Atlanta’s film industry. It launched with a showcase of the work of Oscar de la Renta, and has since held retrospectives of designer, Carolina Herrera, international avant-garde style icon, Daniel Lismore, and in 2018 opened the doors on “Pierre Cardin: Future Fashion,” currently on view at Brooklyn Museum.

An on-campus fashion museum appears to be a distinctly American phenomenon, not associated with schools in the European fashion capitals of Paris, London or Milan. Perhaps there are already so many major museums housing fashion collections in those cities? But it begs the question if the location of some fashion schools is balanced by an on-site fashion museum. The artfully produced exhibitions at the Museum at FIT, celebrating its 50th anniversary, on the ground floor of the Fashion Institute of Technology is located right on New York City’s aptly named Fashion Avenue. Internationally renowned, it demonstrates no sign of being overshadowed by the city’s major fashion mecca, the Met Museum, organizer of the annual megawatt party, the Met Gala. Coincidentally the current show at FIT is “Paris: Capital of Fashion,” which boldly confronts the status of that historical capital of European style and the twentieth century emergence of its American competition.

To understand the importance of the onsite museum FashionUnited speaks to two museum directors from schools in different parts of the country, the Museum at FIT’s Dr Valerie Steele, and Sarah Rogers, from the Fashion Museum at Kent State University whose vast Ohio campus boasts a standalone building housing an 8-gallery permanent exhibition which traces the timeline of two centuries of fashion, as well as a diverse array of temporary exhibits.

The importance of the fashion school museum in the US

Rogers says the reason she accepted the directorship role a year ago was due to the connection between the museum and its engagement with the greater university community. “Being on-campus and so closely aligned to a program adds direct purpose as well as consequences to what we exhibit and collect,” she explains. “For example, we have historic garments that, while lovely or exotic objects, will not mean much if we are not thoughtful about the contexts we provide in the exhibits, the history, the close up, hands-on examination, the opportunity for research and scholarship, the spark of inspiration. We provide the tangible examples for making (see that Chanel Jacket construction) or closely looking at an idiosyncratic combination of materials (Geoffrey Beene from the 80s/90s).”

Likewise at FIT the opportunity to get up close and personal with historic pieces is paramount to fashion education. Says Steele, “Students take classes at the Museum, where they have the opportunity to see close-up garments from the museum's dedicated Study Collection which holds over 1,000 garments and accessories from the 1840s to the present, and which features important designers, such as Chanel and Balenciaga. Popular classes use historic fashions to explore both the history of fashion (changing silhouettes) and also what this tells us about changing beliefs and behaviors (such as the struggle for women to be allowed to wear trousers).”

The Museum at FIT’s Permanent Collection of more than 50,000 garments and accessories from the 1700s to the present is reserved for exhibition and research but tours of these exhibitions are given to students each term.

The Museum at FIT is somewhat unique in that its exhibitions are prized industry-wide, with launches attended by the city's industry glitterati such as Michael Kors, Donna Karan, Marc Jacobs, Tim Gunn. But beyond the red carpet, the student body benefits most from the exposure to craft and technique, and the opportunity to immerse oneself in the archives right on their doorstep.

“Every year, the Museum holds about 400 classes and tours for students,” says Steele, “mostly FIT students, but also students from kindergarden to university, including fashion schools from as far away as London and Tokyo.”

Rogers notes the “fun” of having a campus audience and a public audience with sometimes very diverging interests, but ultimately, she says, “We need to be aware of who our students are, what they are interested in, what they think about and this happens best when you listen and involve students in your plans and programs.” The Museum is a venue where faculty and student work can be exhibited together, and critiqued and discussed. “It makes the theory real,” she adds. “Or informs an idea with historic precedence.”

Although the Museum at FIT does not make a specific point of exhibiting alumni, it inevitably happens because, as Steele points out, “We have so many illustrious alumni, such as Calvin Klein and Michael Kors, so we exhibit their work in the context of our thematic exhibitions.”

Rogers believes a museum visit by all freshman students should be mandatory, to stoke curiosity early in the educational experience. “Even if they are not really interested in anything particular on view, they have made the first step, know what it looks and feels like.” However a rush of students at end of term who have an assignment due but have never been to the museum before is not unheard of.

Museum classes on topics such as "Draping," "Couture Techniques,” and "Cotton, Wool, and Silk" are popular at FIT while Illustration students take a class in which they sketch Chanel suits and Lingerie majors explore historic corsetry. FIT students tend to take most museum courses during their freshman year, but some even earlier. "The Great Designers" is a class offered for high schoolers during FIT's Saturday Live and Summer courses.

Students and faculty exhibit fashion and textiles

Involvement in the concept and installation of the exhibits could provide an extra learning experience for students but it must not interfere with the professional and public face of the museum. At FIT a team of highly skilled conservators, curators, education specialists, exhibition makers, registrars, and media experts on staff is responsible for the four major fashion exhibitions mounted every year. Students are not permitted to be involved, but Steele says there are other opportunities for those interested. “Once a year, museum staff work with a professor and graduate students in the MA program in Fashion and Textile Studies to teach students how to conceptualize and mount a fashion exhibition, utilizing the museum's Permanent Collection.” The Museum staff also works with students and professors to mount a range of exhibitions featuring student work.

Similarly at KSU, student involvement must have a focus. This past May marked the 50th anniversary of the tragic massacre of four Kent State student protesters against the Vietnam War by the Ohio National Guard. Honoring their memory led to what Rogers describes as “a historic and current perspective across campus for everyone to create meaningful opportunities for conversation, reflection, and learning.” An exhibit entitled, “Wearing Justice: Perspectives from the KSU Fashion School Faculty and Students,” was in response to a call to create designs reflecting social justice and activism today, whereas “Culture/Counterculture:Fashions of the 1960s and 70s” provided a historic view of the period, culled from the museum’s collection, with special loans from alumni, the Ohio History Connect, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The on-campus fashion museum not only informs students on the history of fashion but also encourages students to see fashion as a vehicle to be on the right side of history. It allows emerging creatives to imagine themselves as change-makers and society-shapers, possessing the power to construct a better future. These are qualities worth exhibiting.

Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.

Images of museums at Kent State University and Fashion Institute of Technology by FashionUnited