On February 26, 2013, the 70 students enrolled in the University of Western Ontario’s Visual Arts course VAH 2236G 001: What (Not) to Wear: Fashion Textiles and Art II were presented with the following hypothetical situation:
The Zombie Apocalypse has happened and things are starting to get back to “normal” (whatever that might be). You have been hired by what’s left of Vogue magazine to write an article for their readers on how to be a fashion-forward individual in a post-apocalyptic world where there is not a lot of “new” textiles or clothing being made. Vogue has asked you, in the spirit of Andrea from The Walking Dead comics, to repurpose an article of clothing. In addition, they would like to “play” with the idea of the fashion-forward fashionista by having you contextualize your garment and your approach to repurposing by looking back in time at either Depression-era feed sack clothing or WWII make-do-and-mend attire. Remember, you are designing for a fashionable survivor of the zombie apocalypse, not a zombie.
Students were required to submit before and after photographs of their garments, a 100 word summary of their project and a 1,000 word essay outlining the connections between the garment’s design, the materials used and their historical research. This exhibition includes the garments, photographs and summaries of 46 students. Participation was voluntary.
VAH 2236G examines the convergences between art and fashion from the 19th century to now. It considers the work of artists and designers such as Sonia Delaunay and Alexander McQueen, who have designed textiles and clothing, as well as more popular cultural icons such as Lady Gaga and Björk, whose distinctive styles reference the art world. As well, this course traces some of the complex histories of particular materials, patterns and articles of clothing, and considers how subcultural styles have been defined, mixed and mashed. Central to all of these topics is the way fashion has been illustrated and exhibited in museums, films and the print media as well as on television and the internet.
A topic of special interest was the everyday art of DIY refashioning, retrochic, antifashion and ecofashion and their relationship to an expanded art historical canon that embraces the aesthetic practices of appropriation and bricolage. Keeping this in mind, this assignment required students to creatively problem solve by asking them to design and make a garment working under the constraints of an imaginary crisis scenario in which the usual resources and high-tech methods for making apparel were severely limited. To help them devise strategies for dealing with this hypothetical “zombie apocalypse,” they were asked to conduct research into the way people reinvented fashion during past historical crises such as the Great Depression of the “dirty thirties,” when rural families made clothing from feed sacks, as well as the Make-Do-and-Mend Campaigns of the Second World War. The purpose of this assignment was to have students creatively engage with specific moments in history to discover how knowledge from the past might help humans survive in the future. On an experiential level, students were asked to critically rethink and physically reinvent the notion of fashion as they faced the challenges of imagining the crisis, conceptualizing an appropriate design for it, sourcing second-hand materials for their design, finding innovative ways to make it, and justifying their particular choices in an accompanying essay. Students were also asked to hone their professional skills, not only by writing about their garment, but also by finding creative ways to photograph it for the online exhibition. By demonstrating how critical thinking can foster action, the students have had an opportunity to think about the larger implications of everyday fashion choices.
This online exhibition demonstrates how the art history courses offered through the Visual Arts Department at the University of Western Ontario use historical knowledge to develop creative responses to pressing contemporary issues. We would like to thank Dave Kemp for photographic work, as well as designing and creating the online exhibition; Odre for use of the mannequin; Louise Krueger for editing assistance, and Joy James for ongoing support. We hope that students (both current and prospective), professors, academic councillors, artists, scholars and aficionados of an expanded notion of fashion, will enjoy the students’ experimentation and originality. We close by asking “What would you wear in a zombie apocalypse?”
Bridget Elliott (Professor), Julia Krueger (Teaching Assistant and PhD Candidate) and Karen McEwan (Teaching Assistant and MA Candidate)