A Conversation between Assistant Editor Tamar Clarke Brown and Educator Kimberly Jenkins
“Fashion Studies is about studying fashion as both an object and phenomenon, so my background is cultural anthropology and art history. On graduating I started lecturing and I didn’t see a whole lot of work being done on the intersection of fashion and the construction of race. I didn’t see an organised framework. I wanted to develop a robust syllabus that proposed a framework for not only the field of Fashion Studies, but that could hopefully influence other fields and disciplines around us on how we can think through the social and cultural implications of race over the course of the past few centuries and especially how we see it impacting the fashion system today on all fronts.” – Kimberly Jenkins
TCB: Fashion and race are so very interlinked. We don’t talk or think about it as much as we should and that’s a big part of the problem.
KJ: I hate to use an economic paradigm, but when I think of Black bodies and value – and I have been thinking about this a lot: POCs, especially black people, when it comes to music, hairstyles and clothing styles, or even things like posturing, it’s very influential and is constantly drawn upon because it has this flavour, a profitable ‘cool’ factor. As a Black person, you see these things drawn upon and it leaves us scratching our heads. You love our style, and you want to constantly draw upon it like it’s a utility, just tapping from it, yet you won’t give us credit or value our bodies. It’s a constant power struggle.
TCB: In thinking about students who benefit from white privilege, what is the shift in perspective you want your students to get out of your work? Why is it important to disrupt the curriculum?
KJ: Aside from listening to other students and their lived experiences, I want them to learn the history of fashion and race; the cultivation and exaltation of the Western beauty canon? Why do we want this kind of face structure, or this hair colour, or hair texture, or skin tone? Where does that come from? Why is that so pervasive in art history and fashion history, and then subsequently in fashion magazines, where we see it constantly perpetuated. Where does that come from?
TCB: How do you think people can be inspired to make their own moves? What do educators need to do better and how can this inform education globally?
KJ: I think expanding their resources and expanding the way you think about things. I may be projecting a little, but some people feel very comfortable teaching things in the way that they feel comfortable teaching things. When you challenge them or suggest that they make changes to their curriculum, many educators are not ready for those conversations. At worst it’s pure laziness, it’s resistance to new ideas, it’s the laziness of having taught something for ten or twenty years, of not wanting to change or to rethink history because it will involve reading new articles or books or it contests things that they’ve been teaching their students for years. Maybe it disproves things they thought were right. You have a lot of educators who might be resistant but I also see a lot of educators who are willing to do that work. One side note I would mention though if you’re an educator who benefits from white privilege but you do want to do the work, it’s important when you call upon your colleagues who are POC, who are queer, or differently-abled, that you negotiate with them to see how you can work together, finding the ways you can collaborate with their unique or specific knowledge. It can easily steer into the territory where that person who deals with some sort of oppression on a regular basis is having to do emotional labour and additional intellectual labour for you. So when you are shoulder-tapping someone who deals with some sort of oppression because you want to update your syllabus or course, you need to be careful and see what their boundaries are. ‘I’m not here to be your walking library or your free classroom.’ It’s important to take all of those things into consideration too.
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