What a Master’s in Fashion Actually Entails

Parsons MA student Stephanie Edith Herold explores the rise in fashion theory studies


(Photo: Everett Collections)

Earning a master’s degree in fashion studies inspires many questions, chief among them, “Do you, like, sew?” No, I do not sew (though sewing is important, and yes, fashion design is a far more ubiquitous program than fashion history or theory). I study fashion as if it was just as worthy of critical thought as physics or politics—because it is.

Last fall, I began my graduate studies at Parsons the New School in New York with the hope that after graduation I would engage in all my favourite fashion-based activities—writing fashion history articles, teaching kids about clothing and studying museum garment collections—only with more skill and knowledge. I also wanted to “stick it to the man” a little bit.

Emerging from a four-year BA in some pretty liberal arts—philosophy, writing, art history—I was tired of trying to convince people within academia that fashion was deserving of the same kind of careful analysis we perform on Greek vases. Beyond conceiving of fashion as art, I believed in fashion as smart, and I wanted to produce well-researched essays on Louis Vuitton advertisements and talk to people about fashion using my big words.

And I am certainly not alone. A sartorial twist of fate recently placed me on the same New York-to-Toronto flight as Jeanne Beker. When I approached her to talk shop—with the requisite bouquet of compliments, of course—Jeanne confided that she wishes that fashion journalism were more “thoughtful;” her hope is that critical discourse about clothing will be the next big thing.

Academic institutions are listening to the Jeanne-minded. Stockholm University has been offering a doctoral program in fashion studies since 2008, established by a grant from the family of Erling Persson, the founder of H&M. In 2013, glossy giant Condé Nast UK opened its own College of Fashion and Design where, alongside industry training, the curriculum explores the impact of significant fashion designers. And my own MA program at Parsons is barely five years old.

Fashion seems to be beginning to scale the ivory tower, though in reality it has been lingering on the balcony pool deck for well over a century.

The earliest fashion programs were often referred to as studies of “dress” or “costume.” New York University’s graduate program—the first of its kind in North America—was initially referred to as a master’s in “Costume Studies.” (Along the same lines, the Metropolitan Museum of Art houses The Costume Institute.) In 1991, pioneering fashion scholar—and current director and chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology—Valerie Steele wrote an essay for Lingua Franca entitled “The ‘F’ Word,” alluding to the pejorative meaning attached to fashion within academia. (Find Steele’s article, and more on fashion, the academy and feminism here.)

In 1997, in one of the first issues of the groundbreaking academic fashion journal, Fashion Theory, Alexandra Palmer—now the Nora E. Vaughn senior curator at the Royal Ontario Museum—noted that the study of dress was still stigmatized as “a prolonged picnic attended by hordes of schoolchildren and enthusiastic girls on textile or design courses undertaking ‘projects.’” Palmer continued on to explain that when fashion was offered in universities at this time, it was usually as an optional course in art history programs, or as a home economics elective. This was only 17 years ago.

Under the name “fashion studies,” among other monikers, the sartorial academic climate has begun to shift. Fashion studies as a discipline now freely draws on literature from a variety of fields —including cultural studies, art history and anthropology—which supply some of the academic background needed to unpack what wearing white after Labour Day really means. This new discipline is producing its own critical mass of dynamic fashion theories, providing inspiration for scholars in more established disciplines—such as Philip Warkander’s ethnography on the queer downtown club scene in Stockholm. (Warkander was the first fashion PhD student from Stockholm University to defend his thesis.)

Heike Jenss, charged in part with the development of the Parsons MA in 2006, posits that the “the far-reaching global dimensions of fashion as practice and industry” is partially responsible for fashion’s appearance in universities. She suggests that the ubiquity of fashion, “generated not least through fast fashion and the wide circulation and instant access to fashion images in diverse forms of media, not only [further] spurs [an] interest in fashion, but also a growing interest in fashion studies.” Students (mostly females in my program, though more men are enrolling; Parsons doubled the size of its incoming MA class this year ) are interested in the fashion system’s inner workings and far-reaching implications; ideal content for a university course.

Ryerson University, another school known for producing fashion design talent, also began developing a master’s degree in fashion in the mid-aughts. Alison Matthews David, who currently directs Ryerson’s graduate fashion program, attributes the entrance of everyday life into the academy as part of the reason why fashion is appearing in course calendars, à la the disciplines of film and food studies.

Ryerson’s MA program bridges theoretical and practical engagement with fashion. Budding academics and designers are all accepted into the same program; students can choose to complete a practical final project (one recent grad designed clothing that could be used in disaster relief situations) or a theoretical one (such as discussing the Quebec Charter of Values and head coverings, as another did). Fashion is material, and that aspect need not be left behind—just accompanied by context.

Other programs bend their curriculum towards curation. New York University’s MA was once offered in conjunction with the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to ready students for jobs in curation and academia. To prepare for studying clothing conservation, all applicants to the Fashion Institute of Technology’s master’s in fashion and textile studies are encouraged to take a chemistry course prior to enrollment.

The University of the Arts in London has also been adjusting its colleges’ long-running design courses to account for a burgeoning interest in fashion theory. Central Saint Martins, famous for graduating Alexander McQueen among other fashion royalty, has split its BA fashion course into “communication” and “creative” (or design-centered)  pathways; for the last three years, students have been allowed to select a specific stream within these pathways, such as fashion history and theory or fashion design with knitwear. By 2015, CSM’s MA in fashion will be likewise structured. And the London College of Fashion has been offering a master’s in the history and culture of fashion since 2003.

Studying fashion in graduate school is no sample sale, but it is accessible to anyone with a BA (and, perhaps the ability to take out more student loans, sigh). My classmates’ backgrounds have ranged from fronting a band to writing for Architectural Digest. Erika T. Butler, a recent Harvard graduate with a BA in history and literature, ditched law school for the program.

In the senior year of her undergrad, Erika created her personal style blog, The Fashionesta. Here she combines her love of fashion and music by posting her favourite looks to the soundtrack of her favourite songs (I particularly like the leopard booties paired with John Mayer’s “All We Ever Do is Say Goodbye“).

When asked if fashion studies have impacted her blogging, Erika gives an unqualified yes. She elaborates: “on a larger scale, it has impacted the way in which I think about fashion, and impacts the way I consume, and thus the way I… encourage others to consume or not to consume.”

When Erika and I graduate this year, we will join the ranks of other MA students who work in fashion archives, write for Vogue or even teach increasing populations of students interested in fashion studies. Doubtless, we’ll all be running around using multisyllabic nuggets to describe what a meat dress communicates about gender and consumption.

The bottom line: do you genuinely enjoy reading scholarly writing on style? If yes, then an MA in fashion may be a program to consider. When it comes to fashion, the most important thing to do—in my opinion, at least—is to think about it.

Read More: Six Steps to Getting a Job in Fashion

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