“People tend to think of fashion as something superficial, irrelevant or just materialistic,” he says Anne Chengprofessor of English. “But philosophers and writers have long known that it also generates formative meanings about how others identify us and how we identify ourselves.”
In the fall Literature and Fashion course co-taught by Cheng and graduate student Moeko Fuji, students dstudied novels and films using fashion as a filter for these concepts and ideas.
“It turns out that literature and cinema are obsessed with fashion,” Cheng said. “Once we started thinking about this class, the historical scope really amazed us.” Readings included Emile Zola’s 1883 novel The Ladies’ Paradise about France’s first department store, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the essay of Joan Didion from 1979 on the importance of good packaging, etc. Films include Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Wendell B. Harris Jr.’s Chameleon Street.
“There are all these wonderful deep meditations on clothes as well as style that are really about questions of self and class and race and gender,” Cheng said. “And you can’t talk about fashion without also talking about money, globalization, material culture, labor, craftsmanship and art. It is an inherently interdisciplinary subject that helps students develop a more integrated way of thinking.”
The class learned that fashion can even embrace architecture. In “Pride and Prejudice,” for example, Mr. Darcy’s house becomes the arbiter of taste, which ultimately wins over Elizabeth Bennet — more than Darcy himself, Cheng said.
“In class we talked about how Elizabeth initially rejected Darcy’s marriage proposal, but seeing Pemberley for the first time made her think twice. Austin gives us a long description of the house – about a page and a half about its style, how it was built, how it was landscaped. The whole point for Austin was not simply that it was a fancy rich house, but a tasteful rich house. Elizabeth did fall in love first, not with Darcy, but with Pemberley. Here the architecture articulates the taste, and the style itself becomes almost like a protagonist.”
Course cooperation and Haute couture class trip
Fuji is Cheng’s research assistant and they quickly discover that they both have a passion for fashion through an academic perspective. Together, they spent the better part of two years developing the curriculum and were able to co-teach the course through the McGraw Center’s Co-Teaching Initiative.
Cheng called it a “true collaboration” at every step, from curriculum design to course application — which invited students to write 500 words about the designer Li Xiaofeng’s 2009 “Armor Dress” made of porcelain pieces – alternating leading the seminar discussions.
Early in the planning, Fujii reached out to childhood friend Mika Kiyono, who is now associate publicist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute. They met in high school in Tokyo and both came to the US for college.
“I threw out a thought: how amazing it would be if our students could visit the Costume Institute archives,” Fujii said. “In my experience, nothing helps students think better than walking around objects, asking questions, thinking hard about what fascinates them or what makes them uncomfortable.”
During the trip, students met with conservation experts and curators, looking at haute couture from British designer Alexander McQueen’s Oyster dress from his 2003 collection to a futuristic dress from Dutch designer Iris van Herpen’s 2013/14 collection.
The course ended with a virtual exhibition. Students chose an object from the Costume Institute and created an original “change” to make the viewer think differently about the object and wrote an essay to catalog their reflections for a text or film from the curriculum. View their virtual exhibition online.
Sophomore Grace Kim he was immediately attracted McQueen Oyster Dress, a billowing design made of hundreds of layers of sand colored silk organza, georgette and chiffon which imitate striations on the surface of a shell etched with time by the sea.
“Seeing the spread of these lines of stitching on the inside of the skirt made me think of a blank sheet of notebook paper, as if the beauty of the dress was not only in its stunning appearance, but also in its narrative, which was not yet fully written Kim said.
McQueen has always built his collections around a narrative; his 2003 collection was based on a shipwreck at sea and a girl’s survival. For her final project, Kim was inspired by one of the course readings, A Cyborg Manifesto by Donna Haraway. “I imagined that the girl survivor was a woman of color, specifically an Asian American woman like myself,” Kim said. “I reimagined the Oyster Dress as a cyborg, writing my own stories of the shipwreck and subsequent survival, telling them in poems written in English and Korean—my native language and my mother tongue.”
Kim printed a close-up photo she had taken of the dress on the trip to the Met and hand-wrote verses along the inside lines of the dress. “I hoped that my message—that the language and stories of women of color are complex, important, and therefore beautiful—would be nestled in the intimate nature of manuscript poetry,” she said.
Junior Lena Khoplamazian, a history concentrator who is also pursuing certificates in architecture, engineering and South Asian studies, chose the van Herpen dress, made from strips of molded black PVC plastic.
A self-taught seamstress and designer, Khoplamazian is a sewing and embroidery machine technician at the Science and Technology Council’s Studio Lab, a creative technology makerspace that is open to all members of the university community. “Studio Lab is my heaven because it allows me to experiment and fail, freely and often,” she said.
During a shift at Studio Lab, she found a huge pile of Ziploc bags and thin wooden strips. She experimented until she figured out how to put these materials through the sewing machine. her the dress is strapless and shaped like the original, but with a bodice made from Ziploc bags and a hoop skirt made from looped wooden strips sewn together and covered with Ziploc panels.
“Instead of an exoskeleton, I wanted an internal skeleton and materials that were plain and transparent, as opposed to the expensive, dark and mysterious material of the original,” Khoplamazian said. Reflecting on the idea in Bill Brown’s essay “Sense of Things,” which we must see through objects to find the subject within, her catalog essay riffs on van Herpen’s opaque dress: “As a garment, we know nothing of its wearer. To imagine a dress like van Herpen’s that allows us to go inside, I created a change.
This was the first English course Hoplamazian took at Princeton. “The class legitimized the idea that there are so many useful questions to be asked about fashion and design, and so many people providing rigorous, paradigm-shifting answers,” she said. “The ideas that Professor Cheng and Moeko exposed me to will inform the direction of my independent work and the direction of my life beyond Princeton.”
Humanistic perspectives for STEM students
Two of the 10 students in the seminar are concentrating in STEM fields. Both said the class complemented their STEM coursework in a valuable way.
Junior Anurag Pratag, computer science concentrator, took a class with Cheng his first year at Princeton and couldn’t wait to take another.
“Professor Cheng creates a classroom that is rigorous in the questions he asks and in his pursuit of the answers. She made me want to be a better thinker, a better writer, a better reader. It makes us ask about things that are so common in our daily lives that we forget to stop and look at them critically.
Anurag has also attended courses in sociology and architectural theory, as well as creative writing workshops.
“It’s often easy to forget the beautiful and chaotic things of everyday life or to measure the day meaningfully when I’m deep in the study of molecules, cells or code,” he said. “These [arts and humanities] the courses help me imagine, rethink and critique the most mundane and surreal moments in my own life and that of others. A humanistic lens offers me a hidden backdoor to issues, whether it’s the burden of disease or the representation of artificial intelligence.”
Senior Elizabeth Rühlke is a physics major who has taken courses in history, philosophy, religion, film and visual arts. An international student from London, she said one of the main reasons she chose Princeton was that its “liberal arts education allows you to take classes in a range of subjects, and what you choose to major in is not the sole focus of your education, as is the case with most UK universities.
Rülke said she was excited to see two of her passions — the humanities and fashion — combined. “This course definitely influenced my thinking on topics like identity, expression and consumption.”
Cheng hopes the class will change the way students view the world and themselves, no matter what their majors are.
“Unless we can see the world differently, we can never hope to change it,” she said. “To have that transformation, you have to step outside your comfort zone and see things from different angles. I also want them to think harder about how they judge other people when they look at them and how they judge themselves.
She said the fact that the course itself was co-taught helped that process. “It’s so important that students see what it means to entertain multiple views at the same time. Moeko and I presented different perspectives on everything.
Fuji called the experience “a dream intellectual and pedagogical collaboration” that illuminated her new perspectives on teaching. “Not only did I learn from Ann’s brilliant teaching style—our discussions always started with a simply worded but wonderfully insightful question—but co-teaching allowed me to experiment with calling students to think more intensely and intimately about people and things, everything in a joyful way.’