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Op-Ed | How Fashion Education Prevents Inclusivity

Fashion's future creators and decision-makers are taught a narrow worldview in school, helping to perpetuate racism, fatphobia and other damaging tropes that plague the industry.
(L) Excerpt from an exhibition based on Kimberly Jenkins' Fashion and Race course, (R) Indigenous beading on a suit created by Justine Woods, a Ryerson alumni, | Source: Stevens Añazco, Courtesy
  • Ben Barry

At the end of 2019, Condé Nast introduced diversity as one of the “Vogue Values” to guide its vision into the new decade. All 26 editors signed off on bringing these values to life through their platforms and workplaces. We’ve known for a while that inclusivity is the future of the fashion industry, and it’s about time brands like Vogue publicly acknowledge it. But to fully enact this ideological shift, we need to prepare our next generation of fashion creatives. Vogue Values and other industry efforts won’t bring about systemic change unless we also change fashion education because fashion education is the pattern from which the fashion industry is sewn.

For the next generation, fashion school is the birthplace of their worldviews and practises, and the gateway into the fashion industry. Certainly not all fashion professionals get a degree in the discipline, but for the many who do, fashion school is where they develop the thinking, skills and networks that will guide their future careers and shape our industry.

However, the current state of fashion education prevents inclusivity in our industry. How we teach fashion reinforces a narrow set of worldviews and skills that remain rooted in the continuing legacies of the transatlantic slave trade and European colonisation—upholding a white supremacist, gender binarist, ableist and fatphobic approach to fashion. Even more, how we teach fashion influences who sees themselves as fashion students and who becomes the future creators and decision-makers in our industry.

When students begin their education, the boundaries around what is and what isn’t fashion are quickly and tightly established. Fashion history courses celebrate the “birth” of fashion in Paris with the launch of the House of Worth by designer Charles Frederick Worth in 1858. With this single story, Paris and whiteness become the arbiters of fashion; European ways of understanding and practising fashion are the standard. Indigenous, African, East Asian and South Asian fashion design that has been practised since time immemorial are either erased from introductory fashion classes or demoted to “ethnic dress” or “world costume” elective courses.

Non-binary collection by Ryerson alum Mc Joyen Rey | Source: Courtesy

The bodies that make up these fashion history courses are mostly white, cis-gender men who design for white, thin, cis-gender women. Black and Indigenous people rarely make an appearance. Fat, trans and disabled people are notably absent. Students don’t learn why only some bodies have been privileged — and how this has come at the expense of others — because most fashion history courses avoid teaching about the ways in which colonisation and the transatlantic slave trade have structured the fashion industry as we know it. For if they did, our worship of the Diors and Balmains would be shattered.

Failing to teach students about our past means that designers, show producers and art directors reproduce harmful tropes in their work. If fashion education taught about the history of Indigenous genocide, we might not see rampant cultural appropriation. If fashion education taught about anti-Blackness, we might not see blackface repeatedly make its way to the runway.

Studio classes take these Eurocentric worldviews and turn them into practise. Fashion illustration classes teach students to use the “9 head” method. The body is drawn to be nine heads tall, even though the average human is five heads. Clothes are drawn onto impossibly thin, elongated bodies — bodies that illustration textbooks glamourise as having “a more stylised look.”

In fashion design classes, students learn to draft patterns and develop blocks for a standardised woman’s size 4-6, and men’s size 48-50. They drape on dress forms that are produced to mimic men and women’s bodies with perfectly proportioned hourglass or v-shaped physiques. They repeat essentialist, binary beliefs about gender.

Very few schools offer classes in plus-size design and those that do make their single offering an infrequent elective. Even when schools do have a plus-size design course, they only own a few dress forms in a size 14 and above, requiring students to share if they want to create larger garments. Men’s plus-size, non-binary or accessible design classes are absent from fashion course calendars. The result is that most students successfully graduate fashion school without ever attempting to design clothing for a body that isn’t thin, let alone non-binary or disabled.

Most students successfully graduate fashion school without ever attempting to design clothing for a body that isn't thin.

Equally disturbing, dress forms don’t have fleshly rolls, like real human bodies. And dress forms don’t talk back when you drape clothing on them. How is a student expected to learn how a person moves and feels in their clothes when they design on an inanimate object? The breathing, sensing, feeling body becomes irrelevant in the design process, or at best, an afterthought.

Most fashion schools have in-house study collections of historic and contemporary clothing. These archives support every aspect of the curriculum. History courses use them to teach students about designers, wearers and their larger social and political contexts. Design classes closely examine their clothes to learn about construction techniques. But study collections are ridden with bias: the clothes that have been acquired, preserved and celebrated represent fashion’s relentless discriminatory history. Students who want to design in plus-sizes or research the dress histories of Two-Spirit people leave their school’s collections without much reference material and instead with the message that their interests aren’t considered worthy of collecting, being labelled as fashion and, even worse, that these topics (wrongly) never existed at all.

More than curriculum, the culture of fashion education stops students from developing confidence in their ability to advance inclusion. Most faculty have completed the same courses that they’re now teaching. As a result, they don’t know how to illustrate skin tones that aren't white or how to draft patterns in plus-sizes. They’re also resistant to admitting that they lack knowledge or questioning what they’ve always done because they’re supposed to be the experts.

Students who want to learn about Black fashion history or accessible design interpret the lack of attention to these topics as a sign that they don’t matter. While some decide to do their own research and learn this material alone, they end up getting minimal support from their professors when they work on their projects. At my university, one student who was designing a plus-size collection told me that this lack of support caused her to question her talent and vision — which was especially crushing as a plus-size woman whose work was grounded in her lived experience.

A fashion show at Ryerson | Source: Courtesy

Most fashion schools also haven’t developed support for their predominately white, non-disabled, thin faculty on how to incorporate inclusion into their courses. Nor have they offered workshops for faculty to unpack and unlearn their own worldviews. And I say this as a white, thin man who is on a daily journey of checking my own biases and using my privilege to confront systems of oppression. I’ve benefited from taking a gender studies degree, but many of my colleagues haven’t had this experience. Without it, they remain nervous about changing up their curriculum. They don’t want to humiliate themselves in front of a room full of students because they don’t know about the topic they’re supposed to be teaching.

There is real harm caused to our students  — and our industry — by not training faculty. When the few students who are Black, Indigenous and people of colour draw on their cultures as design inspiration, they're often told to "Westernise" their collections or use "less ethnic" fabric. Students creating plus-size collections are instructed to "play it safe" with their designs. And when faculty invite industry experts into the classroom to provide feedback on student work, they're rarely those with experience in aesthetics and markets outside of fashion's white, thin norm — leaving the students who champion inclusion with uninformed and often hurtful critiques. An educational culture that doesn't support the students who want to create an inclusive fashion industry only further alienates them. And students who don't see themselves in the curriculum don't feel welcome in fashion school or in the fashion industry-at-large.

An educational culture that doesn't support the students who want to create an inclusive fashion industry only [...] alienates them.

But a revolution in fashion education is already underway in some schools. At Parsons, Grace Jun pairs student design teams with disabled wearers to co-design an outfit that represents them and functions for their body. Kimberly Jenkins —who taught at Parsons and is now at Ryerson— developed a course that explores how race has shaped value in the fashion system and how people of colour have used fashion to gain access, visibility and power. Kelly Reddy-Best of Iowa State University offers a course on Black fashion history and politics. In Sang Thai's fashion class at RMIT University, students co-design outfits with drag queens. They learn how to design for bodies outside of fashion's ideal and for diverse gender presentations. At Edinburgh College of Art, Mal Burkinshaw created The Diversity Network to bring academics, the fashion industry and students together to challenge fashion's dependence on unhealthy body ideals. And Lauren Downing Peters of Columbia College Chicago recently received a grant from the Council of Fashion Designers of America to enhance curricula on size inclusion — including buying plus-size dress forms and providing faculty with training in plus-size pattern drafting.

At Ryerson, we’ve introduced inclusion and decolonisation as the core principles that guide our curriculum. We’re bringing these to life by teaching about Indigenous fashion and fat activism in mandatory courses, offering a non-binary fashion design class, and hiring faculty from the very communities who are marginalised from fashion in order to transform the bodies and experiences that facilitate learning. And we’re hosting workshops and developing resources to help our faculty ground their courses in inclusion.

More schools need to make these ways of teaching fashion the norm if we’re going to bring about a truly inclusive fashion industry. But this cultural change often starts with just one faculty member who pushes back against the culture — like Grace, Kimberly, Kelly or one of the other faculty path-breakers. There is backlash, but one small step can start a revolution.

I remember my first small step well. Back in 2015, Ryerson students had to classify their graduating collections as menswear and womenswear. But many students didn’t want to narrowly gender their work. When I advocated to my senior colleague for a non-binary option, I was met with resistance: “That’s not how the fashion industry works.” But I responded with a belief that guides my work to this day: “The purpose of fashion education isn’t to serve the fashion industry; it’s to lead it.” Leading the industry means teaching the next generation how fashion has benefited certain groups by marginalising others and then working with them to redress it. That is the only way to make the Vogue Values real and lasting.

Ben Barry is Chair and Associate Professor of Equity, Diversity & Inclusion in the School of Fashion at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. He holds a PhD in Management from Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge.

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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