Fashion Nerds Converge

“I always sit in the front row,” I overheard a young woman tell her friend. “I’m a nerd.”

I could relate. A nerd myself, I arrived early at Convergence: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Fashion, Ryerson University’s first Fashion Studies graduate symposium that took place last November, and observed the over-caffeinated presenters as they organized their notes, unpacked their laptops and scurried about.

Other snippets of conversation that could be appreciated by WORN readers surrounded me:

“What are you wearing? I can see the Peter Pan collar!”

“There has to be a certain number of left-handed desks in the room. It’s called equity.”

“I’m going to wear my hat during my talk. I’m going to wear it until Wednesday.”

“You have every right to squeal; tutus are a sight to behold.”

“I’m not putting a name tag on silk.”

As the students, professors and guests took their seats, Sarah Portway, a Ryerson graduate student and one of the presenters, discovered her PowerPoint presentation would not load properly.

“It’s like I tell my students,” she said. “If there’s one thing that will screw you up, it’s technology. Late last night, I decided to be funny and create a pictogram. This is my punishment. Maybe it’s because my computer’s made of wood.”

I asked her if this was true. “Yeah, the outside is bamboo. My talk is about sustainability, so I should put my money where my mouth is.”

During her introduction, Associate Professor Dr. Alison David Matthews explained the title of the symposium. ‘Convergence,’ she said, means to ‘bend towards.’ It was a good metaphor for the diverse but overlapping topics discussed throughout the day.


Caroline O’Brien inspects a tutu for her talk on the Ballerina in Western Culture

From harem pants in interwar Paris to style blogs in the digital age, the presentations touched on the conflicts inherent in the study of fashion. Is fashion decorative or protective? Superficial or indispensable? Frivolous or feminist?
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Saturday: Embrace Your Inner ‘Fashion Nerd’

“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
image source unknown