Fashion and Justice at Parsons School of Design

by Ella Tieze

Intersectionality. These days, the word is (or should be) at the forefront of discussions surrounding women’s rights, healthcare, education, and the many other sociopolitical challenges facing the country. Yet, when it comes to fashion, are we doing enough to consider the complexities of race, class, and gender in the industry?

This past Saturday, Slow Factory attended the Fashion and Justice Workshop at Parsons School of Design in Manhattan. The day began with a presentation from Jonathan Michael Square, a writer and professor of history at Harvard University. According to Professor Square, fashion and close visual analysis are valuable pedagogical tools that tell a history of slavery not present in the written records. Perhaps the most striking example given in the lecture was a painting entitled Four Children in a Louisiana Landscape. The painting, credited to either Trevor Thomas Fowler or Theodore Sydney MoÏse, depicted three white children from an elite Louisiana family; upon restoration of the work, however, curators discovered a young man of color who had been painted over and hidden from the landscape. He appears to be a sibling, but stands in the background, literally marginalized. The painting sparked a discussion surrounding the importance of noting not only the presence, but also the absence and erasures of black bodies in art and fashion.

Four Children in a Louisiana Landscape

 

Given its complex visual history, slavery is often told and retold through costume. From film to TV to music, costumers like Patricia Norris, Ruth E. Carter, and Karen Wagner seek to tell specific, referential stories with the clothing they choose. In 12 Years a Slave, the outdated Empire-waist shift worn by Lupita Nyong’o suggests it is a tattered hand-me-down from a plantation owner’s daughter. Something as subtle as cloth can convey not only a bygone era, but also the glaring oppression of one human claiming ownership over another's body and dress. 

 

Costume styling: 12 Years a Slave

 

While some costumes tell tales of abuse and neglect, others are empowering; in her 2017 Grammy performance and visual album, Lemonade, Beyoncé celebrates black identity through the reclamation of regal dress. The star’s iconic yellow and gold costume worn both in scenes from her album and Grammy performance is a direct reference to the image of Oshun (Oxun), a Yoruba deity known as a healer and goddess of love.

In the afternoon, Kimberly Jenkins took the stage. Kimberly is a professor of fashion history and theory at Pratt Institute and a part-time lecturer at Parsons School of Design. She led a fascinating discussion about the sociocultural and historical influences on style and identity and the role problematic pseudoscience has played in defining Western fashion. The conversation spanned topics of race, national identity, democratization, and appropriation.

Professor Jenkins recognized that much of today’s fashion is built on uniformity, capitalism, and privilege. She also posited that style can be a form of power and protection that subverts the gaze of its oppressors. Take for example the Jumpsuit Project and the REBRANDED Collection. Following the lecture, Professor Jenkins sat down for an interview with Joy Douglas, the creator of the “REBRANDED: Redefining post-incarceration identity.” The project thesis and fashion collective “aims to redefine and reclaim the labels of post-incarceration identity.” The world of fashion is a complicated one, with a history rife with discrimination and appropriation. But if we took away one thing from our day at Parsons, it is that while fashion can pose a threat to certain bodies, it can also offer them redemption.

A piece from Douglas' REBRANDED collection