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When Fashion Meets Language and Culture

The program in Fashion Studies joined forces with the Italian Program at Queens College

Italian and English languages live side by side in two projects analyzing Fabric culture and made in Italy. Proving that language can be learned through fashion, the conversation touches on cultural references and environmental sustainability

The silence from this column of over the last few months can be explained by the many events and on going projects I have been involved in with my students at Queens College and the Graduate Center. The program in Fashion Studies joined forces with the Italian Program at Queens College on two research and pedagogic projects. One is The Fabric of Cultures: Objects, Memory, Technology that takes up once again a project dating back ten years that culminated in an exhibition, a scholarly book, conferences and seminars. The project as it was then examined the relationships between textiles and clothing from Eastern and Western Cultures across time and space. For example, the caftan, whose T shape looks like a universal and timeless object, which is always reproposed with different fabrics and motives in fashion.

L'incontro tra moda, lingue e culture

Fabric of Cultures

The Fabric of Cultures 2:0, the project’s current version, has received the generous support of the Queens College Center for Teaching and Learning, an avant-garde institute that promotes new pedagogical research projects like ours. We have revisited the old project dedicating special attention to a few  selected objects in order to form a path traced by three letters and three forms: T, as in T-shirt and its links with the history of cotton and globalization; I, as in intersections, a combination of elements of design and cultures, an example is the designer Antonio Marras; and P, as in pleats, which suggest movement of worn clothes and also return and rhythm. All of the above are key concepts to understand fashion as an industry but also as a powerful symbolic universe.

These three letters, which together form the acronym TIP, were first thought out in English, but they can also be rendered in Italian:  T as in T shirt, using an anglicism; I, as in Intersezioni; and P, as in Pieghe).  TIP guided my journey as I designed the courses I taught last fall at Queens College, a Freshman Year Initiative (FYI), and the Department of European Languages; and at the CUNY Graduate Center, but it also guided the collective reflection of the team of researchers with whom I have been working on the digital part of the project as well as the project as a whole.

Italian and English live side by side in this research. Some of these tales can be found on the website blog Fabric of Culture.

The site is now in a re-organization phase. But I promise you that it will be even more impressive in a couple of weeks when it will be “live” and open for visitors. As soon as it is ready I will make an announcement; it is open for use by anybody interested in fashion pedagogy and research. Now that I am writing about it, I have become aware that the basic principle is that of Translation, not only inter-linguistic translation, but also translation from the digital to the material, the photograph and fabric, the fabric and clothing, an old pair of jeans and so many other objects that can be made from a cell phone cover to a bag etc. This is one of the projects developed by my Fashion Studies student Kat Roberts. In the two courses I taught this past fall, one at Queens College with Freshmen students and the parallel one at the Graduate Center with doctoral and masters students, we embarked on a journey that went from the book, history and theory to the fabrics and old T-shirts we used for our projects during the workshops conducted by artists and designers. For instance, the one conducted by Tabhita St, Bernard, an independent designer who  produces her collections with “Zero Waste” techniques. She brought to the class the scraps left over from her latest collections and a sewing machine. With her guidance, students made several things, necklaces, bags, scarves, a dress, a lavender sachet (this was my contribution). We talked about labor, globalization, the pricing of objects, fashion industry workers’ rights, social justice, beauty and aesthetics, the politics of pleasure and making but also of the meanings of the made in Italy. We had the pleasure to welcome as a guest Maurizio Forte, Director of the Italian Trade Commission (ITA) in NY who also supervises other government agencies in the US. He talked to us with the passion of a professional and expert on the different duties of the ITA, the different areas he has worked in (he was in China and Moscow before NYC), but also of the challenges in the global world of promoting Italian products.

L'incontro tra moda, lingue e culture

Kelly Paciaroni

L'incontro tra moda, lingue e culture

Nicole Paronzini

In class, we also spoke of the emotional quality of clothing and the memories it evokes. This conversation will be continued in an upcoming conference on March 4th, 2017 and at an exhibition that will take place at the Art Center/Queens College, running from September to December.  In this context we will launch the first edition of the Festival of Made in Italy: cinema, arts & culture (I will give details of this in a subsequent article).

The project on Italian fashion and Made in Italy also has a bearing on  research and pedagogy and is organically linked to the Fabric of Cultures 2:0. On February 17th we organized with IACE and the Center for Teaching and Learning a development workshop for teachers dedicated to Teaching La Moda in Italian language and culture courses.  Through the speakers, Kelly Paciaroni high school teacher who has just graduated with a MA in Italian from Queens College; Antonino Bonanno, MA and Italian language teacher at Queens College; Nicole Paronzini, PhD candidate in Comparative Literature and Fashion Studies at the Graduate center who also teaches courses on Italian language, the workshop showed how to teach an advanced course of Italian through the lens of fashion.

Kelly used a novella by Luigi Pirandello titled “La Marsina Stretta,” the title says it all; Antonino spoke about the origins of jeans showing among other things a painting of Giuseppe Garibaldi wearing a pair of jeans; Nicole examined the question of plural identities (ethnic/western) in the contemporary narrative written by migrant Italian writers. In sum, this was a very fascinating path that has received a great many positive responses from the teachers present at the workshop and the Director of Education, Prof. Carlo Davoli who gave his welcome and blessing to the initiative and Ilaria Costa from IACE. Part of our madeinItalyLab, a laboratory and a site for the promotion of the Italian language and culture  based at Queens, involves the development of a pilot course.

We welcome you all to Queens College for Italian Studies and to the Graduate Center for Fashion Studies where we practice interdisciplinarity, new technologies and methodologies and academic rigor in our research and pedagogy laboratories.

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