A top spot on school rankings lists, qualified faculty, study abroad opportunities, a high graduate employment rate, are all by now goals of the modern prestigious fashion school. But scattered throughout the country are institutions with an extra attribute, a little-mentioned jewel in their crown. These bastians of learning can boast of an inner temple for those seeking ultimate fashion enlightenment: the on-campus fashion museum.
The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the University of Texas, Louisiana State University, University of Rhode Island, and Philadelphia’s Drexel University are a handful of institutions which have assembled collections of costume and textiles to present students with a portal into history. Through a changing calendar of exhibitions they offer new ways of exploring the subject of dress, provoking deeper student engagement with fashion beyond mere the of-the-moment hyped trends, or corporate dominance of the industry, or its celebrity associations.
SCAD FASH at Savannah College of Art and Design bills itself as the first fashion and film museum, a natural fit considering the growing significance of Atlanta’s film industry. It launched with a showcase of the work of Oscar de la Renta, and has since held retrospectives of designer, Carolina Herrera, international avant-garde style icon, Daniel Lismore, and in 2018 opened the doors on “Pierre Cardin: Future Fashion,” currently on view at Brooklyn Museum.
An on-campus fashion museum appears to be a distinctly American phenomenon, not associated with schools in the European fashion capitals of Paris, London or Milan. Perhaps there are already so many major museums housing fashion collections in those cities? But it begs the question if the location of some fashion schools is balanced by an on-site fashion museum. The artfully produced exhibitions at the Museum at FIT, celebrating its 50th anniversary, on the ground floor of the Fashion Institute of Technology is located right on New York City’s aptly named Fashion Avenue. Internationally renowned, it demonstrates no sign of being overshadowed by the city’s major fashion mecca, the Met Museum, organizer of the annual megawatt party, the Met Gala. Coincidentally the current show at FIT is “Paris: Capital of Fashion,” which boldly confronts the status of that historical capital of European style and the twentieth century emergence of its American competition. Fashion Trade Show very like it.
Rogers says the reason she accepted the directorship role a year ago was due to the connection between the museum and its engagement with the greater university community. “Being on-campus and so closely aligned to a program adds direct purpose as well as consequences to what we exhibit and collect,” she explains. “For example, we have historic garments that, while lovely or exotic objects, will not mean much if we are not thoughtful about the contexts we provide in the exhibits, the history, the close up, hands-on examination, the opportunity for research and scholarship, the spark of inspiration.
Likewise at FIT the opportunity to get up close and personal with historic pieces is paramount to fashion education. Says Steele, “Students take classes at the Museum, where they have the opportunity to see close-up garments from the museum's dedicated Study Collection which holds over 1,000 garments and accessories from the 1840s to the present, and which features important designers, such as Chanel and Balenciaga. Popular classes use historic fashions to explore both the history of fashion (changing silhouettes) and also what this tells us about changing beliefs and behaviors (such as the struggle for women to be allowed to wear trousers).”
The Museum at FIT’s Permanent Collection of more than 50,000 garments and accessories from the 1700s to the present is reserved for exhibition and research but tours of these exhibitions are given to students each term.
The Museum at FIT is somewhat unique in that its exhibitions are prized industry-wide, with launches attended by the city's industry glitterati such as Michael Kors, Donna Karan, Marc Jacobs, Tim Gunn. But beyond the red carpet, the student body benefits most from the exposure to craft and technique, and the opportunity to immerse oneself in the archives right on their doorstep.
“Every year, the Museum holds about 400 classes and tours for students,” says Steele, “mostly FIT students, but also students from kindergarden to university, including fashion schools from as far away as London and Tokyo.”
Rogers notes the “fun” of having a campus audience and a public audience with sometimes very diverging interests, but ultimately, she says, “We need to be aware of who our students are, what they are interested in, what they think about and this happens best when you listen and involve students in your plans and programs.” The Museum is a venue where faculty and student work can be exhibited together, and critiqued and discussed. “It makes the theory real,” she adds. “Or informs an idea with historic precedence.”
Although the Museum at FIT does not make a specific point of exhibiting alumni, it inevitably happens because, as Steele points out, “We have so many illustrious alumni, such as Calvin Klein and Michael Kors, so we exhibit their work in the context of our thematic exhibitions.”
Rogers believes a museum visit by all freshman students should be mandatory, to stoke curiosity early in the educational experience. “Even if they are not really interested in anything particular on view, they have made the first step, know what it looks and feels like.” However a rush of students at end of term who have an assignment due but have never been to the museum before is not unheard of.
Museum classes on topics such as "Draping," "Couture Techniques,” and "Cotton, Wool, and Silk" are popular at FIT while Illustration students take a class in which they sketch Chanel suits and Lingerie majors explore historic corsetry. FIT students tend to take most museum courses during their freshman year, but some even earlier. "The Great Designers" is a class offered for high schoolers during FIT's Saturday Live and Summer courses.