Honors College Lecture Explores Fashion’s Powerful Political Impact



Honors College Lecture Explores Fashion's Powerful Political Impact


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One iconic scene from The Devil Wears Prada shows domineering fashion editor Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) rating her new assistant Andy (Anne Hathaway) for thinking she is above the sway of industry trends. Focusing on Andy’s lumpy blue sweater, Miranda details a genealogy of designer choices from Oscar de la Renta to Yves Saint Laurent that led to her choosing the “cerulean” garment.

That short movie clip speaks volumes about the complex systems behind the clothes we wear.

“In that moment, she’s breaking down the entire ecosystem of fashion,” explained Eric Darnell Pritchard, associate professor of English and Brown Chair in English Literacy. “She’s saying, ‘no, we made this choice for you,’ which is, therefore clearly emphasizing the power that fashion has.”

Pritchard will examine the ways that fashion has impacted and is affected by the world’s social, political and economic landscape in their public lecture “Fashion Identity and Power” at 5:15 pm Thursday, March 7, in Gearhart Hall Auditorium (GEAR 26). All on campus and in the community are invited to the lecture.

The lecture will preview their fall 2024 Honors College Signature Seminar, Fashion, Identity and Power.

TRACKING TRENDS OVER TIME

While conceptions of fashion often relate to today’s latest trends, our relationship with what we wear builds on attitudes from previous decades. For Pritchard, this relationship is an important piece of contextualizing our outfits.

“To say something is in fashion is to say that it’s something happening right now, but there have been several now,” Pritchard explained. For example, they noted that women wearing pantaloons was a growing fashion trend in the 19th century, while a new practice today is Pantone’s color of the year diffusing through designers’ clothing lines.

For Pritchard, examining the factors behind clothing also allows us to better examine the social and political forces at play today.
“A garment can tell us about social, political, cultural, economic life and then also what people do with those things, the meaning that we give to them,” they emphasized. “Because that is how fashion comes to life–it comes to life on limb.” They also highlight how these social and political questions enter our daily interactions with others.

“The minute we wake up in the morning and think about—or don’t think about—what we’re going to put on, those are both choices that ultimately say a lot about how we see ourselves in the world, and therefore , also how we’ll be perceived by others,” Pritchard noted.

They also asserted that we might uncover far more global implications surrounding how clothing is produced. In Pritchard’s view, analyzes of fashion and textile production uncover the forces at the forefront of conversations around world history today.

“We’re talking about colonialism, we’re talking about labor exploitation, we’re talking about climate justice,” they detailed. “There’s not an important issue where garments don’t have something to do with it.”

DESIGNING FOR DIVERSE FIELDS

From unpacking the ways the Little Rock Nine and Black Panther Party used dress in their activism to the criminalization of styles of dress in the United States and abroad, Pritchard’s lecture will truly embrace an interdisciplinary lens. They credit this broad approach with fostering a dynamic learning environment within courses unpacking such complex topics.

“I think that the best conversations in my experience often come from having that sort of diverse sampling of thought,” they recalled. “And that comes both from our individual experiences and where we come from — the regions, our background and [more] — but I think it does also come from the intellectual communities that we are a part of on campus.”

While the lecture and course this fall might immediately draw students from apparel merchandising, sociology or English, Pritchard affirmed that STEM disciplines are a key part of conversations around fashion.

“Engineering is so relevant for so much of the fashion ecosystem in terms of manufacturing, in terms of how people are making clothes,” they explained. “Someone like Isabel Toledo, if you went to her and asked, ‘are you a fashion designer?’ She would say, ‘no, I’m not a fashion designer: I’m an engineer of garments,’ which is absolutely spot on.”

Topics such as textile and fabric science, sustainability concerns and the intricate construction of designer looks at celebrity events also underscore the technical aspects of fashion relevant to students in STEM fields.

“You look at certain clothes — especially at the Met Gala — and you think, ‘how did they do that?’” Pritchard noted. “It really does take an engineer’s way of thinking in order to [create] a garment for these very performance type moments.”

ABOUT ERIC DARNELL PRITCHARD

Pritchard is an award-winning writer, scholar, cultural critic and 21-year community-accountable educator. Pritchard is the endowed Brown Chair in English Literacy and associate professor of English. They are also writing faculty at Middlebury College’s historic Bread Loaf School of English.

Pritchard’s first book, Fashioning Lives: Black Queers and the Politics of Literacy, received three book prizes. They are editors of “Sartorial Politics, Intersectionality, and Queer Worldmaking,” a special issue of QED: A Journal in GLBTQ Worldmaking. Pritchard’s writings have been published in numerous venues including the New York Times, Harvard Educational Review, International Journal of Fashion Studies, Public Books and Ebony.com.

Their research and writing have been supported by several fellowships including the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and the Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference at Emory University. They also received the 2018 Esteem Award for National Service to the LGBTQ Community at the 11th Annual Esteem Awards in Chicago, Illinois.

Pritchard’s upcoming biography of 1980s fashion design superstar Patrick Kelly, Abundant Black Joy: The Life and Work of Patrick Kelly, will be published by Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins. They have also written a companion picture book biography on Kelly, Clothes to Make You Smilewhich will be published by Abrams Books.

SIGNATURE SEMINARS EXPLORE DIVERSE TOPICS

  • Fashion, Identity and Power is one of four Honors College Signature Seminars scheduled for fall and summer 2024. Other topics to be explored include:
  • Technology Craft — taught by Vincent Edwards, director of technology for the School of Art, and Edmund Harriss, assistant professor of mathematics;
  • Gothic — taught by Lynda Coon, Honors College dean, and Kim Sexton, associate professor of architecture; and
  • The Geography of Star Trek — taught by Fiona Davidson, associate professor of geosciences.

Deans of each college may nominate professors to participate in this program, and those selected to teach will become Dean’s Fellows in the Honors College.

Honors students must apply to participate, and those selected will be designated Dean’s Signature Scholars. The course application is posted online on the Signature Seminars web page. The deadline to apply is Monday, March 10.

About the Honors College: The University of Arkansas Honors College was established in 2002 and brings together high-achieving undergraduate students and the university’s top professors to share transformative learning experiences. Each year the Honors College awards up to 90 freshman fellowships that provide $80,000 over four years, and more than $1 million in undergraduate research and study abroad grants. The Honors College is nationally recognized for the high caliber of students it admits and graduates. Honors students enjoy small, in-depth classes, and programs are offered in all disciplines, tailored to students’ academic interests, with interdisciplinary collaborations encouraged. All Honors College graduates have engaged in mentored research.

About the University of Arkansas:As Arkansas’ flagship institution, the U of A provides an internationally competitive education in more than 200 academic programs. Founded in 1871, the U of A contributes more than $2.2 billion to Arkansas’ economy through the teaching of new knowledge and skills, entrepreneurship and job development, discovery through research and creative activity while also providing training for professional disciplines. The Carnegie Foundation classifies the U of A among the few US colleges and universities with the highest level of research activity. US News & World Report ranks the U of A among the top public universities in the nation. See how the U of A works to build a better world at Arkansas Research News.

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