As society and culture have moved towards identity-based conversations, as have various industries like the fashion industry. Though people of color have raised concerns for years about representation and exclusion, now the industry as a whole is beginning to engage with those conversations in meaningful ways. And Professor Kimberly Jenkins is intent on equipping whoever might be interested, with the baseline knowledge to be able to engage in these ways.
Last month, Jenkins launched the Fashion and Race Database, “an online platform filled with open source tools that expand the narrative of fashion history and challenge misrepresentation within the fashion system.” The site is stocked with a resource library filled with pertinent books about race, fashion and aesthetics as well as a collection of affiliated films and a directory of sites for extra research. But in addition to helping dissect ideas behind the clothes we wear and equipping everyone from her students to industry professionals with tools on reading into the implications and stereotypes that inform imagery, the site also hopes to add designers of color back to a historical canon that has been whitewashed. To this end, it compiles features on lesser known designers like Patrick Kelly, who was not only the first known black American designer to show in Paris under his own label, but the first American designer period to do so, is also a significant component of the mission, into one place for easy access for anyone who might be interested. In the future, she hopes to continue to do this, bringing in more contributions from other scholars as well as students.
Here, ahead of the opening of the fashion exhibit of the same name on October 27 (Fashion and Race: Deconstructing Ideas, Reconstructing Identities) in New York [Ed note: exhibit is over as of publish date] that “consider the ways in which race has affected the fashion system in terms of visibility, aesthetics and power,” we talk to Professor Jenkins about what it took to get this project live and why it’s important that it exists and is accessible to all.
Can you tell me a bit about how you got started with the project?
It all started with the development of my course at Parsons School of Design, "Fashion and Race." As I was developing it, and this is around 2015 through the summer of 2016, I found myself stumbling upon these resources like bits of history, different objects, books about style, books about representation and how to read into images. As I started encountering all this great information developing the course, I was thinking, "Wow. These are things that I'm not seeing or reading in fashion's history or theory or the business of fashion doesn't really know a lot about this.”
As I started compiling those sources, I just thought eventually I would love to build some sort of compendium or some sort of database where everyone could sort of benefit from this, and everyone, not just in education, but people in the business in fashion. People who are stylists. People who are photographers and fashion editors and writers and buyers and things like this. In 2016, I developed a website with a fellow scholar, Rikki Byrd, and we called it the Fashion and Race syllabus. It was this really kind of this WordPress website that was kind of like a digital version of a syllabus that was open source.
Fast-forward to the summer of 2017, I end up getting a grant through the New School to fund my own project that I had proposed where I was gonna go one step beyond what Rikki and I designed. That was building my own fashion and race database. It was gonna be a little more robust where it was gonna have glossaries and calendars of events of things relating to fashion and race that resources for you when you want to learn more about other blogs or websites or scholars who are doing this similar work and essays.
I wanted to build this robust platform that really just kinda gave you this one-stop shop for all things related to problems in fashion when it comes to race.
Where did your interest in the interest in fashion and race overall really start?
I was writing a little bit about [fashion and race] in the graduate program at Parsons. There was a graduate program called fashion studies, which studies dress as both an object to be studied and as a phenomenon. And so it's kind of like anthropology instead of the theology of fashion. That lent an opportunity for me to investigate fashion from a political sense. I found myself interested in topics like cultural appropriation versus appreciation, and ways that we can fashion our identity for a sense of self-determination. How can style or clothing, the things you wear, adornments, be used as a tool for self-determination? I was really interested in those sorts of things, so once I graduated I thought, "I want to explore how far I can go with studying this." It certainly seems that people I talk to are very interested in it, too.
In your view, what is the purpose of the database as a whole?
The purpose is to expand our literacy of fashion, the way we understand fashion. I want to make it accessible to everyone, so people in the business of fashion. I don't want to make it too overly academic. But I want to create a resource space that helps expand the way we think about fashion and encourage you to consider the ways in which race and the socio-cultural construct of race has truly shaped aesthetics and ideals and values in the fashion system.
We take these things for granted, or maybe we don't really think about it, and this is what I want all of the different resources that you'll find on the site to do. We don't really think that critically about the way we look at images for instance. So I have resources that help us understand and learn how to read into images. This is beneficial not just for the layperson but for fashion photographers and stylists. And what I mean by this is subject positioning, like who's in the center of an image when we think about it? Are they empowered? The way someone is styled. Can you read race through that? And in what way? Or do we even want to read race into it? So just thinking about the power dynamic of fashion.
Another concept to think about is cultural appropriation, cultural appreciation, and a new term that scholar [Menhoff Fam] came out with, and that's racial plagiarism. So getting people in the fashion industry and just people who love and participate in fashion, which is all of us, to think about what are you wearing? Is it connected to a certain culture? Might what you're wearing or decide to wear have a triggering effect on someone because it has some sort of political or emotional stigma to it when it comes to race? Thinking about discrimination, whether it's for models being discriminated against in shows or by designers or modeling agencies. Or it's just discrimination of the everyday person when you're black and you're walking into a high-end store and people are following you around, just kind of thinking the very worst of you when it comes to your presence in that store when you're just trying to shop.
I also want it to be a space for profiles where you can find out hidden histories, things—black designers for instance that you didn't know about who were kind of left out of fashion history books. Histories of Native American dress that, again, these things are left out of dress history.
When you say reading into an image, and reading race and positioning I think about the online discussion about that image of Nicki Minaj and Kim Kimble which is a much more nuanced conversation than I think is going on most of the time.
I’m actually hoping to open up this database to contributions from scholars or people from the industry who have things to write about and say. This will be a space where we can explore that also because that's a good point you bring up to. It's not just images, unsympathetic or disparaging images of black people not being centered or things like that in predominantly white fashion magazines. But indeed, yeah, we're still seeing kinda, this remainder of history, like the paper bag test where we just see illustrations of colorism through these probes of a darker skinned woman grooming the fairer skinned woman where it almost kind of suggested that the lighter skinned woman is more privileged and should be taken care of. It's contently left up to the darker skinned woman to do all of the nurturing work and the mothering and the care-taking and things like that. So I think that that is an image, that's ripe for an image analysis article on the database article. Let’s unpack this, like let's read into images like this.
I find it interesting mostly because while yes Kim Kimble is a darker skinned woman, she’s also a leader of her industry. So this wasn’t someone “subservient,” she is an industry icon and the color of their skin is a matter of simply their genetics.
I'm so glad you say that too though because that's also an example of how we get in our own way. Where we just find these things to problematize instead of, beyond reading into the image, reading into context and realizing do you know who Kim Kimble is? But I’m interested in actually having these conversations on the database and for the database to become a resource for people wanting to have these conversations.
Was there a one must have content wise when it came to this launch?
The biggest thing, which I had completed a few months in advance, was I wanted at least to have the books up there and some good videos at least up there. I've already had a couple of colleagues say, "Oh, you should add this book or this book." I was like, "I know, this was just sort of an initial mind dump of all the books I think would be good, but yes there's going to be more to come and I'm happy to take recommendations or suggestions of books." I wanted to have the books there for some videos because that's probably, in my mind, the easiest thing. And then I just wanted to get a head start with some existing articles that are out there already. Like some old Teri Agins articles for the Wall Street Journal about discrimination in the work place, like at Ralph Lauren and another good piece from Rikki Byrd for Racked about chitlins being served at Bergdorf Goodman.
What's your next big thing that you want to do on the site?
Second big plans is really kind of making it a more robust database. So I want to have encyclopedic entries. I want a bit of formality to it where it's almost like an online library. I want to have a glossary of terms, or encyclopedic entries about objects of style. Again, sort of like the do-rag for instance, someone to give you an encyclopedic entry about that. I want encyclopedic entries about hidden figures in fashion or people of color working in fashion who you don't know about. I just want to add that formal component to it to where it's just sort of this destination for finding all of this material that you're not finding elsewhere. Or it is elsewhere but just kind of scattered all over the place. So I want it all organized.
(Photo: Angela Weiss via Getty Images)