Kimberly M. Jenkins on Her Revamped Fashion and Race Database and the Need for Change –

That, again, is going to have to start at the top where a dean or chair of the department advocates for it. And then it’s going to take getting instructors or faculty members to do that uncomfortable and tough work of learning new histories. They’re going to have to unlearn some things and learn new things.

Would you say that fashion history is often organized around the study of star designers?Yes, it’s very much like this power of the leader mentality. We’ve always studied and idolized or deified these certain designers, so why stop now? Like, this is the system, these are the monuments that we sort of worship when it comes to fashion. But it’s time to rethink that from a gender perspective, from a race perspective. There are so many names that are missing, [of designers] who really shaped or influenced, believe it or not, many of these people that we’re deifying, but we’ve just never heard about them.

But it’s also this vicious cycle because our knowledge of history is only as good as the archives we have. Sadly, in the past century, there are many underrepresented figures in fashion history and art history that we don’t know about because they didn’t have the resources, or there wasn’t a scholar, or curator, or archivist advocating to hold onto their work and preserve it.

There are probably hundreds of sketches, diary entries, [and] photos that are just lost and destroyed because no one preserved those histories, no one preserved those fashion collections. [Then] when we go into an archive or a collection, we have all these beautifully preserved Dior pieces, all this beautifully preserved Yves Saint Laurent, because of white privilege, more often than not. All of that remains intact and everyone treats it as it is precious, and so we hold on to it.

What are your wishes for the future; what changes need to be made?I like to aim high and by that, I mean, straight to the C-suite, straight to the dean’s office; change starts at the top there. Until there is an earnest effort to really diversify within those spaces where power brokers and decision makers, or the people who are overseeing a curriculum of a whole fashion program, are really doing the deep work of seeing what diversification involves, we’re not really going to see change.

You can use as many models [of color] for campaigns as you want to show how diverse you are, or kind of show, quote, unquote, diversity on social media all you want, but really change has to start at the root. There [might be] a little bit of discomfort at having to learn new things maybe, or—heaven forbid—you might have to get out of your seat for someone else or make room for more people, [but] that is the way change happens. In fashion education we’re slowly starting to see more people being hired, but until there’s diverse hiring, and new ways of thinking, and change in the internal culture of these environments, it’s going be very difficult to see a manifestation of change. Students and customers, they’re smart, you know; if they’re not seeing [change] on the inside, they’re going to lose faith in the process.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


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