“Fashion has been sidelined and denigrated as a serious object of study for far too long,” says Dr. Alison Matthews David, Assistant Professor at the School of Fashion at Ryerson University. “Popular debates over it are highly polarized: we either love fashion, celebrating it uncritically, or we hate it, criticizing it as frivolous, feminine, and irrational. It is in fact a highly-rationalized, multi-faceted, multi-billion dollar industry that touches the lives of everyone who gets dressed in the morning.”
It is this bias which ‘Convergence: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Fashion,’ a graduate student symposium hosted by the Research Committee of Ryerson’s School of Fashion, seeks to correct. On Saturday, November 5, graduate students with backgrounds in fashion design, art history, psychology, photography, philosophy, fine arts and journalism will present on a wide diversity of topics, from Pre-Raphaelites and ballerinas to globalization and guerilla marketing.
The interdisciplinary nature of the symposium reflects the mosaic nature of fashion studies. “It is still becoming established as its own field,” David explains, “which means that graduate students interested in fashion are largely trained in other disciplines. But these diverse backgrounds bring a lot of different perspectives to our discussion.”
While David thinks we’re getting better at unabashedly discussing fashion, she still meets people who have trouble understanding what she does. “I often get a surprised reaction from people when I say I’m a fashion historian and theorist. They immediately ask if I sew. I tell them that I’m the ‘intellectual nerd of the fashion world’ and try to present a critical perspective on fashion.”
While studying art history at Stanford University, David began researching the history of tailoring (which became the topic of her PhD) and has “never looked back.” Her work has focused on gender, social class, and material culture in 19th century France and Britain, but she says she likes to pick topics from all over. Last year, she co-wrote a chapter with colleague Dr. Kimberley Wahl about clothing in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series. “We were fascinated with the fact that fashion plays such a prominent role in transforming Anne from an ugly ducking to a beautiful, aesthetically-attuned and accomplished young lady.”
David was recently awarded a grant by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada to continue to examine the dangers of fashion. “Corsets and heels cause mechanical harm to the body but fashion has also killed people through chemical contamination, accidental entanglement and fire, and the transmission of contagious disease through second-hand or contaminated clothing…
“I’m writing about mercury poisoning and ‘mad’ hatters, arsenic-containing green dyes during the Victorian period, and tulle and gauze skirts which present fire hazards for the wearer. I have been researching a ballerina whose tutu caught on fire at the Paris Opera,” says David.
Technology has solved some problems but created others, such as carcinogenic chemicals used by the garment industry. “The problem has not gone away and the problems the fashion industry and rampant consumerism still create are far from frivolous, unfortunately.”
David hopes the symposium will encourage students interested in fashion to pursue what inspires them and become “fashion nerds.”
‘Convergence: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Fashion,’ will open to the public, free of charge, in Kerr Hall South at Ryerson University on Saturday, November 5th at 9 a.m.
Click here for the list of presentation topics.
text by Max Mosher
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