Special Topics in Fashion: Fashion and Race

  • Drawings by Zachary Adams.
    Drawings by Zachary Adams.

Fall 2017 fashion design seminar led by lecturer Rikki Byrd

Rikki Byrd’s fall 2017 Special Topics in Fashion: Fashion and Race seminar built on the 2016 Fashion and Race Syllabus developed by Byrd and her colleague, Kimberly Jenkins. The syllabus collects selected readings, media, and resources that address the provocative question: “Is Fashion Racist?” Students explored fashion along with intersecting disciplines, including women’s studies, Africana studies, sociology, and anthropology.

During the semester, class discussions addressed the intersections of fashion with race, gender, and the body. Readings highlighted the complexity of appropriation, particularly of native fashion and design. Students also explored representation and display of race and fashion through media, museums, and consumption. They visited the St. Louis Art Museum for the Reigning Men exhibition, which explored the history of men’s fashionable dress from the eighteenth century to the present, and perceptions of masculinity and race in fashion.

Throughout the semester, each student developed and executed a creative project that responded to a research question around a critical intersection of fashion and race. For example, Jeremy Barnes created a tote bag to bring awareness to the mass incarceration of African Americans which provides resources for self-education. The tote bag, as an everyday object that conveys the social consciousness of the wearer and their belief system through logos and messaging, creates an extension of the owner’s beliefs. The accessory initiates a conversation with others that can end in additional information, including statistics and graphs, to reinforce the emblazoned question: “Is Mass Incarceration really a problem?” Rosa Jang’s project explored a different intersection of fashion and race. Her research paper, The Madame Butterfly Effect, examined how the translation into fashion of the early 20th-century opera’s aesthetic reflects and furthers the fetishization of the Asian female body and culture. By investigating the stereotypes and generalization created in productions of Madame Butterfly, she traces a path to the present day, ending with Christian Dior’s 2007 Haute Couture Spring collection, titled Madame Butterfly.