We are thrilled to speak with Kimberly Jenkins, a visiting assistant professor of fashion history and theory at Pratt Institute and a part-time lecturer at Parsons School of Design. We first met Kimberly at her Fashion & Justice Workshop, which she developed with her collaborator at Harvard, Jonathan Michael Square. The workshop serves as an entry point to examine the role of fashion in challenging inequality through sartorial ingenuity. We are honored to welcome Kimberly as a member of our advisory board and grateful for her work.
SARA: As a professor of fashion history and theory, tell me about your work as an educator.
KIMBERLY: Teaching between Pratt Institute and Parsons School of Design, the courses I lead vary by title, but at the core of the learning objectives, I encourage our students to think critically about fashion. I present concepts that draw connections between history, theory and everyday life.
We think about 'fashion' as both a noun and a verb, how one's dress practice is an intimate strategy of identity construction, and how fashion as a system of clothing production and image making is ever evolving. Ideally, at the end of each course, the student should feel empowered to take part in that evolution.
SARA: How did you first become interested in your field?
KIMBERLY: I grew up enamoured with fashion as a child, and during my teenage years I began to memorize designer and models' names in addition to their biographies. At the time, my respect for fashion was rather superficial, and I hadn't given thought to thinking about it in terms of race, gender, class, or labor practices. However, by my senior year in high school, I stumbled upon books at the local bookstore that examined race and ethnicity through the lens of societal standards and justice.
It wasn't until several years later that I managed to discover a pathway through my study of cultural anthropology and art history in undergrad where this could all make sense. At the encouragement of my art history professor and a mentor, I pursued a master's degree in a new program offered by The New School called Fashion Studies.
The design of a typical undergraduate fashion history course (at any university, I might add) is not very inclusive.
SARA: You recently developed a course “Fashion and Race” at Parsons. Why do you think people working in fashion keep tripping over the race issue?
KIMBERLY: Prior to graduating with my master's at Parsons School of Design, I served as a teaching assistant for the BFA fashion history course. The design of a typical undergraduate fashion history course (at any university, I might add) is not very inclusive. There's an urgent need to teach the student what 'matters', which, more often than not, prioritizes the innovation and contributions of predominately white and/or Western designers and related icons and figures. This was also my experience as an art history student.
Upon graduation, I knew that I wanted to dedicate my career to advancing the (relatively nascent) field of fashion studies, and this would start by encouraging an uncomfortable conversation–fashion and race. I am among the very few scholars of color who have attempted to pursue a career in fashion studies, and I have taken on the scholarship of fashion and race as a calling, as many in the halls of fashion academia do not feel entirely comfortable or prepared to address fashion and race.
I knew that I wanted to dedicate my career to advancing the (relatively nascent) field of fashion studies, and this would start by encouraging an uncomfortable conversation–fashion and race.
It's sometimes awkward when I share the fact that I talk about fashion and race in addition to talking about fashion history and theory, as one doesn't quite know what to say. However, I am grateful that The New School has provided the opportunity for me to create and teach a course entitled, "Fashion and Race," as the timing simply could not be more crucial. Many of the students who enroll in my course (which is now in its second fall semester) voice a sense of relief, and others just want to better understand the landscape and history of racial oppression and be the change they wish to see in the industry.
SARA: People working in our industry generally think of themselves as progressive, but we consistently see whitewashed runways and tokenism. What do you make of this?
KIMBERLY: I see a few things: People who truly feel they are progressive, but people of color simply aren't part of their everyday (or they don't want to get it wrong), so they stick to what they know. For example, I think of Raf Simons when he first began designing menswear–his priority was to feature models that looked like the kinds of guys he spent time around. He hadn't really set out to diversify menswear in terms of race, but rather an aesthetic. Then we have the designers and/or industry leaders who want to capitalize off of diversity and intersectionality, but are not doing this in earnest when you investigate their runways and hiring practices. And finally, I see designers and industry leaders who are aware of what's going on, but remain apathetic, as it doesn't really affect them at the end of the day. They are complicit in white supremacy and privilege.
I see designers and industry leaders who are aware of what's going on, but remain apathetic, as it doesn't really affect them at the end of the day. They are complicit in white supremacy and privilege.
SARA: What role do you think fashion can play in challenging racism and inequality?
KIMBERLY: I may be biased here, but the solution is through education! When I work with my students, there's such curiosity and passion there. I have students who want to have a greater understanding about the fashion world around them, along with the sociocultural and historical contexts that may reinforce systemic racism and inequality in terms of fashion and beauty. What's key here is naming the problem and developing a curriculum that cultivates literacy in what racism is and what racism does. What we are seeing is, from the very root of fashion education, students are entering an industry operating amidst unaddressed problems that stem from systemic racism (among other sociocultural issues) along with the ongoing struggle for equity in representation. These students may go on to work for industry leaders who have little at stake and do not have the knowledge or inclination to restructure the fashion system in a way that will begin to resolve those issues.
Kimberly M. Jenkins is a Visiting Assistant Professor of fashion history and theory at Pratt Institute and Part-time lecturer at Parsons School of Design. Kimberly specializes in the sociocultural and historical influences behind why we wear what we wear, specifically addressing how politics, psychology, race and gender shapes the way we ‘fashion’ our identity, and how these aspects influence the business of fashion.