“Do Clothes Matter?”: Smith Theater Department Hosts Fashion Event

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Emma Vejcik ’22

Assistant Arts Editor

The Theater Department recently hosted the 60th anniversary of its student-led event, “Do Clothes Matter?” The symposium was held April 6 in the Campus Center, where a group of students studying Costume Design presented the culmination of a semester of research, alongside keynote speakers such as Vanessa Friedman, Sonnet Stanfill and Jan Glier Reeder.

Kiki Smith ’71, professor of theatre and curator of the event, presented the collection to a Carroll Room full of alumni, students and faculty. The event was centered around the ideology that clothes are a representation of both the individual as well as the social context that the individual is placed in. Set alongside the national publicity garnered around the infamous Hillary Clinton presidential campaign pantsuits, the “Pussy Hats” of the 2017 Women’s March and, most recently, the Senate’s “White Out,” “Do Clothes Matter?” engendered the idea of the power of clothing, both historical and contemporary.

The event included discussions of relevance to clothing and its history between Smith and Friedman, student presentations and further talks detailing the curation with Stanfill and Glier Reeder.

Friedman, chief fashion critic of The New York Times, recounted her own history, from student to prominent fashion writer, while Smith prompted her with several photographs of articles of clothing. Friedman recognized designers such as Claire McCardell, Patrick Kelly and Mary Quant as historical waymakers, both in the political and social spheres as well as the realm of original fashion design and technique. Friedman named Michelle Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Brigitte Macron as inspirational women who had completely and effectively grasped the utility of clothing and its influence on public relations and communication. The conversation traveled back and forth between the historical paths of haute couture, prêt-à-porter fashion and the value and consequences of clothing in today’s increasingly globalized culture.

In spirit of the symposium, Friedman affirmed, “Clothing is about choices. It’s really about identity.” When asked why clothes matter, she responded with, “[Clothes are] an expression of us, how we telegraph who we are to the world, and that makes them incredibly important.”

Professor Smith moved along to introduce the rest of the event to the audience, giving a short overview of the event, how it came to be and what the symposium means to Smith College. Since its creation by a few Smith students working in the theatre department, “Do Clothes Matter?” has expanded rapidly due to student and academic enthusiasm and generous donations from various Smith alumnae who are invested in seeing the collection thrive. While space is limited in the collection’s year-round home at Mendenhall Center (“filled to the gills,” Smith jokes), the professor and her students produced a noteworthy collection of historical items.

For the 60th anniversary of the event, students focused on the topic of cotton and all of its connotations within the fashion industry. The assemblage included a wide range of artifacts, from maternity work clothes to Sylvia Plath’s senior prom dress, Smith College World War I Relief Unit uniforms, a nun’s habit and a vest made of soda can tabs. The majority of the collection can be found online since Smith and her colleagues are building a digital catalogue of the pieces, granting access to photographs and studies of the selected items.

Following Friedman and Smith, the eight students who had worked alongside Professor Smith this semester presented their research of selected works. Close examinations of manufacturing processes, stitching, wear and any repairs allowed students to discern the lives and eras through which these garments had been worn, bringing to life the individuals who had possessed the displayed clothes. From gingham pinafores to Mexican lace mini dresses, each outfit had its own story to tell. The necessity of preserving more than one narrative, and in more than one way, fosters conversation of the unrecorded women of history and their individuality within the rippling social movements of previous generations. Students discussed their learning experience and takeaway lessons, their encounters with handling complex archival material and their research from primary sources.

Smith hopes that both the physical collection and the computerized version will enrich and expand the student curriculum. The collection was initially used for the purpose of costume design in the theatre department to make illustrations and examples with construction and textile details, but it can now be accessed by anyone for historical reference and sourcing.

The future of the collection is in the hands of the community. Smith classes, such as American history seminars and French language courses, can often be found utilizing the collection for background information and context. The collection flourishes from both funding and clothing donations made by Smith alumnae and those who have heard of the collection via word of mouth. Professor Smith hopes to create a center for the study of dress, including a teaching director, assistants and a developed digital component as a completed package for “the expanded vision of a rich addition to the curriculum,” allowing students to interact with tangible history.

The audience was allowed to examine the outfits placed around the room. Conversations were built around the pieces, allowing attendees of all ages to connect with each other and with women from a time past, learning of and from history. Professor Smith concluded, “If we acknowledge that the past is worth saving, we acknowledge that we are worth saving too.”

ArtsSophian Smith