On the day I sit in on Eve Nicols’ “Aesthetics: Theory & Practice” textiles and apparel course, the professor of instruction is waxing poetic about fabric, stacked silver bangles clinking up and down both of her arms as she gracefully sweeps them around to make her points. “Fabric will tell you by the way it actually pulls what the best thing to do with it is,” she tells her 60 or so students who nod. Unlike me, this is not the first time they have thought of fabric as an object that can tell you something; a thing that has a voice of its own. Fabric speaks to these students, I realize as I glance around the room and take in their outfits—a velvet cape draped over Spandex; a knitted, structured boyfriend blazer paired with wide-legged swingy jeans—in a language I’ve never quite mastered.
“What looks good and how different colors and proportions work together—some people have that instantly,” Nicols says after class. But it can be developed, too, through time, experience, and by “looking at different things and seeing what in their gut and their heart really looks good and why.” Those principles are what she tries to cultivate with her students, the majority of whom are freshmen majoring in textiles and apparel. “I generally don’t find that people in this major feel like they know everything from day one,” says Nicols, who has been teaching in UT’s School of Human Ecology since 1996. “They mostly are excited by it. They want to learn more; they want to apply those skills.”
Throughout the semester, Nicols introduces the class to the elements and principles of design like color and texture, and then asks them to take those concepts and develop products. “They have to get their ideas onto the page in a way someone else can understand them,” says the London-born Nicols, who has worked for major brands in Milan, Hong Kong, and England. “Because the whole point of them being here is to have the option of a career in the industry.”
The focus of the class I attend in late February is all about textiles, and Nicols is animated. “Fabric is kind of my passion and obsession,” she laughs. She seems to be trying to fill her students up with as much inspiration as possible for them to draw from, and her slide deck ranges from images of colorfully-dyed sheep and classic Chanel tweed to a video of Stella McCartney musing on evening wear (“as a woman, how do you want to represent yourself to a room full of people you may never meet again?”) and a mini-doc on tech couture where a designer says with a straight face, “I wanted to make 3-D printing as sensual as I could.”
At one point, in an attempt to further illustrate a point she’s making about woven fabrics, Nicols interrupts herself, exclaiming, “Oh, yes, I have an example!” before leaning down to pull a spindly and deceivingly long hot pink scarf that matches her pink cat-eyeglasses out of a suitcase. She looks, for a moment, not unlike a fashionable Ms. Frizzle. When she projects it on the document camera to magnify its woven intricacies, several students audibly gasp. “See,” she tells them excitedly, “there’s a lot of different things we can do when we’re creating the fabric for our products.”
In the last 10 minutes, Nicols rolls three suitcases out from behind her lecture stand and declares, “I’m not actually going on vacation, but having lived all over the world I’ve collected quite a bit of fabric,” before dumping their vibrant contents across a fold-up table. “I always buy 5 yards, because with 5 yards, you can do anything, right?” Students come up to pore through the tall heap with her—pulling apart a piece of mesh that looks like origami; rubbing silver appliqué between their fingers; holding a pastel Easter-egg colored piece of silk up to the light.
I’ve been thinking of Nicols’ students a lot since classes went virtual due to COVID-19, and particularly about that moment, which now feels like several lifetimes ago: a bunch of eager and fabulously dressed undergrads crammed around a table, looking through vintage fabrics while chatting casually with their professor. How do you create those kinds of tactile, organic learning experiences over Zoom? And what does it look like to work toward a career in the fashion industry when it feels like the whole world has nothing to get dressed for, besides an occasional trip to the grocery store? When brands like J. Crew, Neiman Marcus, and JCPenny are all filing for bankruptcy?
“Fashion is a reflection of what we feel at a moment in time,” Nicols says. Which is I guess why all I’m wearing (and all anyone else is wearing, according to Instagram) are sweat suits. I feel a kind of numbness, as workdays and weekends and Zoom meetings and Zoom bachelorette parties bleed into each other, and my favorite gray sweatpants, pulled on day after day with little emotion attached to them, have become illustrative of it.
It’s not just me: when we meet the first time, Nicols tells me that students admit that they dress up on the days they have her class. But when we talk later about what it’s like to teach online—her first time in over two decades as a professor—she says her Zoom grid has been filled with students in athleisure. “The fact that we could carry on is extraordinary,” says Nicols, who, because of students who had returned home to families in Korea, Paris, and even Australia, was teaching across multiple time zones. “Although of course it’s not as fun as everyone being in the same room.” Which is why she tried to encourage as much face-to-face interaction as possible: “Every time their faces would show up on the screen I would smile and wave,” she laughs. “Just turn your video on, I don’t care if you just got out of bed or you’re eating, just turn it on, I want to see you.”
Nicols’ “Zoom outfit,” as she calls it, is, of course, a notch above the expected. She has hung a large piece of bright pink fabric directly behind her, and she opts for something “cool, light, and white” on the days she’s teaching, with “one of those textiles that I usually bring in—something that makes it a little interesting.”
And, she says happily, on the days her students presented their final projects, they looked more like their old selves: decked out in creative face makeup and tops. “I couldn’t tell what they were wearing for their whole body,” she says, “but it didn’t stop them from expressing themselves.”
I don’t know how I’ll feel when all of this has passed, but I am fairly confident I’ll be ready to shed these gray sweatpants. It’s comforting to know that Nicols and her students are thinking ahead for me, gleaning the knowledge they need to clothe us, post-pandemic, when we’ll turn back to fashion to express whatever feelings replace this current numbness. When we’re eager for ways to reflect whatever new moment is next.