Fashion For Erudition

THERE WAS A TIME, NOT LONG AGO, when fashion began in the fingers of individuals gifted with a sense of style and the moxie to make something of it. Not any more. Now, aspiring fashionistas have to draw on their parents’ retirement income, take out loans and subject themselves to degree programs in fashion studies.

The old Parsons School of Design, now a division of The New School, has extended its name. In the 1970s it became Parsons The New School for Design. It is a suitably portentous name for a school that sells craft as erudition, both overlaid with a patina of misplaced utopianism. Parsons has just broadcast a call for applications from colleagues with professional and/or academic qualifications for these faculty positions:

Assistant Professor/Professor, Design Studies

Associate Professor/Professor, Design Studies

Post-doctoral Fellows, Design Studies

Assistant Professor, Assistant Professors and Instructors, Fashion Design

Assistant Professor, Fashion Studies

Assistant Professor, Integrated Design

Assistant Professor, Strategic Design

Assistant Professor, Strategic Management & Design

Like every academic department with the word studies attached, content is subordinate to posture. And, as night follows day, the posture has a predictable leftward drift. Frank Alvah Parsons, from whom the school took its name in 1941, was committed to the pursuit of beauty in ordinary things. But today’s academy has difficulty grasping the social value of that pursuit and the grace of its democratic applications.  Supplicants for a position in Design Studies are advised to take note:

The School of Art and Design History and Theory is looking to develop and expand its academic strengths at graduate level in design studies with particular interest in design ethics, design futures and design activism.

Did you catch that design activism. Not sure what, exactly, it is but it sounds wonderfully similar to the new vogue for social practice:

Understanding of the implications of design practice in relationship to broader social, cultural, economic, scientific and technological forces.

Design ethics is another interesting item. It is quite possible that entire seminars in the subject could be eliminated if, over the blackboard in every classroom, was posted that old injunction: Thou Shalt Not Steal. [And if they do not use blackboards, it can be flashed up on a Power Point presentation in a moment of silence.] But the mission of higher education is to increase, not decrease, incentives to buy a degree. That, in itself, is of questionable ethical standing. But, in academia as in politics, foxes and hen houses go together.

Fashion Studies shares with Design Studies the same vaguely Marxoid enthusiasm for aptitude in the totality of social, cultural, economic, scientific and technological forces. The Design Strategies faculty wants to be right up there on the roster with Nobel winners:

Applicants should demonstrate expertise in the practice and teaching of fashion, broadly conceived, that will include experience in one or more of the following areas: sustainable fashion; textiles and clothing design: fashion-related services; emerging fashion markets – working with artisan communities locally and globally; alternative business strategies in fashion; innovative and sustainable models for garment production, distribution and consumption; political and cultural economy of fashion; theory of the body, identity, garment, and fashion systems.

That sustainable fashion is intriguing. Clearly, it does not refer to jettisoning planned obsolescence: skirts up one year, down the next; chartreuse spangles, in this year, out the next. That would kill the entire industry. No, no. The trick here is to master the atmospherics of high-mindedness while continuing the parade of seasonal castoffs. Use environmentally friendly materials, call it eco-fashion, and get Bono to endorse it. Hot-ticket fabrics are ones that come with a social conscience, like bamboo cloth or jacket facings made from shredded plastic bottles [Honest! I tried one on. Very soft.]. The fact that sustainable fashion costs more than conventionally made clothing—and might not go into the washer as easily—is just one more inconvenient fact. But Parsons faculty can live with it.

No need to wonder what professors of Strategic Design profess. Parsons spells it out:

Successful candidates will practice and have expertise in at least one of the following areas: Design Entrepreneurship; Design for Social Innovation; Design Activism; Service Design; Social Media; Distributed Design; Networks and Cultures. We are looking for candidates whose practice explores emerging opportunities for designers in non-traditional design fields such as healthcare, government, education, microfinance, smart infrastructures, and social entrepreneurship, and have an acute ability to think through systems and networks that allow for new modes of design practice to be codified.

And here you thought fashion was fun, didn’t you? You had no idea health care or microfinance was a “design field.” [To understand microfinance, see this report on a nasty U.S. microlender repossessing a goat in rural India.] If they could, Parsons’ faculty would resurrect Nurse Ratched as a fashion czar. At Parsons, our designers and our nannies are one and the same.

© 2010 Maureen Mullarkey