From even the slightest look around campus, one thing is crystal clear: Sarah Lawrence students are into style and clothes. Yet for students interested in studying fashion at the college, whether to support visions of a future in the industry or simply out of curiosity, opportunities may seem surprisingly limited.
This is largely not unique to our school. As a discipline at the intersection of art and design, fashion is approached in diverse ways across the state universities, small liberal arts colleges, and conservatories that offer courses in varying numbers, breadth, and style. It is also a multi-faceted subject that encompasses the technical side of clothes-making — sewing, draping, pattern-making, and so on — as well as the design principles, history, and philosophy behind the clothes.
While there are no courses on fashion per se at SLC, the theatre program currently offers two courses related to clothes-making: Costume Design I and II. Liz Prince, who teaches both courses, stresses that costume design is far more focused than fashion design—it essentially involves communicating the qualities of a character onstage through dress and accessories, whereas fashion can be applied more widely.
Prince notes that these courses, while “[having] a very full approach to allowing students the opportunity to design costumes for student productions,” are highly competitive in space, with fourteen spots per class. It is also difficult for non-theatre thirds to audit as there is already substantial interest from within the theater department. Prince adds: “It really is here to support the theater program and the giant amount of shows they do.”
When asked about the possibility of adding more courses and expanding the program, she explained: “It’s a problem of space…of real estate. The room we have here is but barely adequate to teach what we teach and beyond that, to teach in a more comprehensive way would be very difficult.” And while she does see offering a set of fashion history or theory classes as possible, “it would have to be outside the theater department — they have enough on their plates.” And so the question of how courses in fashion could be fitted into existing departments and curricula, and who would initiate this, remains up in the air.
On the most basic level there is a problem of logistics, but does the lack of fashion courses also point to a deeper problem with how the discipline is perceived?
Gwenda-lin Grewal, who in addition to teaching philosophy at Sarah Lawrence also has her own design company and is currently writing a book on philosophy and fashion, offers the following take. “Costume design sort of makes it seem less flippant…because of course you need costumes for theater, but no one wants to admit that you need costumes for life, which is the whole point of wearing clothes.” She suggests that the inherent superficiality of fashion can be scorned in academia: “jettisoned as not part of art” or “somehow demoted as a lesser art,” which might be another reason why many schools don’t offer fashion courses.
And yet, Grewal argues, “part of what it means to be human is to fashion oneself”, and “rather than a lofty shallow activity for airheads, everybody participates in this activity whether they know it or not.” In recognition of this, she has taught a popular course in the past called Philosophy and Fashion, which dealt with the role of style and appearance in philosophy, as well as the philosophy of our complex relationship with clothes. While not currently on rotation, she is considering bringing it back.
Otherwise, Sarah Lawrence academics don’t offer much in the way of fashion at the moment — but there’s ways to get around it and get an education in it anyway. Prince emphasizes the value of building a strong artistic foundation that will help in any field of design, which after all “is all about what you know and what you can imagine.” She recommends taking as many kinds of visual arts classes as possible — sculpture, painting, life and figure drawing, or anything at all — “to get to know the elements of design through actually creating with color and texture and line…which all come into play when you’re working with clothing.”
Prince also suggests taking an interdisciplinary approach by focusing conference projects in any subjects from chemistry to economics on topics such as fashion sustainability, clothing science and technology, marketing, and others deeply relevant to the industry.
Prince concludes: “There’s many ways to get quite a bit of what you would get in fashion school through a liberal arts education. Within your studies here you can probably find a way into making it veer towards your interest, and then perhaps have internships in the summertime.”
For a more focused experience, there’s also the option of taking part in the new Sarah Lawrence Fashion and Design Club. Founded by Dani Berris (‘21) this year, the club will allow fashion-oriented students to “come together and bond, talk about fashion, share our favorite looks, share our favorite designers, and eventually…start sketching out ideas” said Berris. Once all sketches have been finalized, members will vote on their favorite designs, and the club will spend the rest of year making those designs with sewing machines (“which the administration will hopefully fund!”).
Berris also has plans for putting on fashion show at the end of the year that is inclusive and political. She muses: “We could get students to model it and make it a very activist fashion show by getting like people who identify as male to model traditionally female clothing. I think that would really represent Sarah Lawrence spirit and attitude.”
Finally, there are incredible resources off-campus in New York City. For those who’d like a more rigorous training in the techniques of clothes-making, Prince suggests heading over to the Fashion Institute of Technology, which offers courses throughout the school year as well as summer institutes on sewing, draping, flat pattern-making, and other hands-on courses. And to further expand one's fashion vocabulary, it’s always valuable and fun to go see gallery shows and fashion exhibits at the Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Costume Institute at F.I.T.
So don’t lose heart — there are plenty of ways to get a rough approximate of fashion training. And for those who have professional aspirations in the fashion industry, Grewal offers the following advice: “You can drop yourself in the world simply by meeting the right people and networking, just putting yourself out there.” Immerse yourself in fashion in any way you can, cultivate and show off your style through social media (especially Instagram, the fashion world’s chosen network), and, she advises, just be your stylish self. Above all, Grewal stresses: “You can’t be intimidated by the nature of it. You have to believe that it’s possible.”
Chelsea Liu '21