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Program Profile: MA Fashion at Ryerson University

Program Profile: MA Fashion at Ryerson University

Christian Dior  exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum with Ryerson University School of Fashion MA Program, March 2018. Photo: Jaclyn Marcus.

Christian Dior exhibition at the Royal Ontario Museum with Ryerson University School of Fashion MA Program, March 2018. Photo: Jaclyn Marcus.

Love fashion, but confused about where to study it, to learn about, critique, and engage with it? Don’t worry, you’re not alone.

As an undergraduate student, I hadn’t recognized my interest in fashion until the latter years of my English Language and Literature degree. When I first began Ryerson University’s MA program in Fashion, I was unsure how to explore my research interests at the intersection of dress and literature. I shouldn’t have worried; the MA program welcomes and encourages students from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds. Part of the program’s appeal is the understanding that fashion is inherently an interdisciplinary field, and therefore impacts each cultural sphere as much as it is shaped by them.

The INTERDISCIPLINARY nature of fashion

Remaining the first and only Master’s degree of its kind in Canada, Ryerson’s graduate program has been innovating in the fashion industry since its inception. The MA is a part of the larger School of Fashion within the Faculty of Communication & Design, allowing students to interact with students, faculty, and extracurriculars in many diverse disciplines during their time in the program.

For students, this interdisciplinary approach is a major asset within the School. Michel Ghanem, a 2018 graduate of the MA in Fashion, describes his experience entering into MA after completing his undergraduate degree as follows:

“I feel I came out of my BA with a slight naivety [as to] what was considered within the canon of fashion studies… Within a semester in the program, I shifted my focus completely. I began uncovering aspects of my own identity and how I could bring it into my academic research and writing. Thankfully, the Fashion MA program at Ryerson offers the space to do so.”

Within a semester in the program, I shifted my focus completely. I began uncovering aspects of my own identity and how I could bring it into my academic research and writing. Thankfully, the Fashion MA program at Ryerson offers the space to do so.
— Michael Ghanem

Students begin the two-year degree with a year focused on coursework, giving them the opportunity to explore approaches before settling on a final area of research. Required classes incorporate fashion theory, history, creative and studio work, and research methods, while elective courses include diversity in fashion, dress and popular culture, and sustainable and ethical design practices. The faculty at the School are interdisciplinary as well; as Dr. Ben Barry, Chair of the School of Fashion explains, “[The instructors] represent the panorama of knowledge, methodology, and approach that is fashion studies.” These faculty members help to create an environment where students’ fashion research can flourish.

Another valuable required core course within the program is a graduate seminar focused on professional aspects of the field of fashion studies, including applying for conferences and exhibiting presentations and research. Romana Mirza, a current second-year master’s student, joined the School after working in the fields of marketing, design, and branding. Having entered the program after gaining extensive industry experience, Romana, too, was impressed with the program’s focus on multiple disciplines as a means of enhancing her research, which centers on the modest fashion industry and Muslim women’s intersectional identities through modest fashion: “I didn’t expect the interdisciplinary nature of the program. The fact that we studied theorists from multiple scholarly fields—anthropology, economics, etc. was a huge bonus for me.”

This was echoed by Azadeh Monzavi, a second-year student and researcher at the intersection of nineteenth-century fashion and art: “The interdisciplinary nature of the MA Fashion program at Ryerson University has enabled me to pursue my love of fashion and dress, while utilizing my prior knowledge of art and art history.” For these students, the program’s interdisciplinary approach motivated them to develop and progress their research and professional goals.

Learning Outside of the Classroom

Another central draw of the MA Fashion program is the focus on learning about, and engaging with, fashion beyond a classroom setting. Throughout coursework, students are able to attend field trips, events, and lectures. When I was a student, this included class visits to fashion exhibitions across Ontario, including a panel and tour of the Christian Dior exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum, an excursion to the Dance Collection Danse archives in Toronto, and a talk led by an international fashion scholar at the Spoke Club, a media, entertainment, and arts space in Toronto. Students I spoke with for this article also mentioned their recent visit to Guelph University’s  Re•Vision Centre for Art and Social Justice, an arts-methodology research hub where digital storytelling as one approach to fashion research was explored. Within courses, too, emphasis is placed on the importance of extending fashion studies beyond academic writing and developing additional skills, through course projects like creating a podcast episode and conducting interview-focused studies of an individual’s wardrobe. These engagements with fashion offered students the chance to connect with clothing and dress through multiple lenses in informal, community-focused settings alongside traditional research methods and approaches.

“Fashion at Ryerson has provided me with the opportunity to expand my personal creative practice into every aspect of my theoretical research.”
— Presley Mills

As a member of the MA Fashion program, students have access to multiple resources within Ryerson University itself. Integral to this is the awe-inspiring Fashion Research Collection, a dress collection and archive that contains thousands of fashion objects, open to students for their projects and independent research. As well, the School has connections with collections and resources within the university and around Toronto, a growing international hub of fashion, including the Royal Ontario Museum, where students have visited collections and studied historical fashion plates, and the Bata Shoe Museum, curated by Elizabeth Semmelhack, an adjunct faculty member at the School of Fashion who has also taught the core Theory and History I course.

Additionally, MA students are encouraged to take part in the degree’s internship program. An early portion of the graduate seminar is directed towards internship opportunities for students, helping them to identify and successfully complete internship positions that count as a core course within the degree. For me, this was one of the most important aspects of the program; I interned during the second semester of my first year for Ryerson’s open-access, academic journal Fashion Studies and continue to work for the same publication today, over two years later. Ryerson is unique because its home is in Toronto, a vibrant city with a growing fashion industry, granting students access to internship opportunities and experiences with museums, magazines, and retailers that the School can help to facilitate.

Creative and Written Research

The MA program’s multi-faceted approach to fashion studies results in a wide range of research interests in the classroom. Students are matched with supervisors based on their chosen area of study, with faculty members who may be a part of the School of Fashion or other faculty and programs at Ryerson. Another forward-thinking perspective offered by the MA in Fashion program grants students the ability to present research in the mode of both creative work and written papers, in order to complete their Major Research Project (MRP) in the final semester of their degree. Though students begin to shape their MRP following the end of their first semester, it is the second year of the program that is focused primarily on this research, alongside additional elective courses. Second-year MA student Presley Mills, whose Major Research Project investigates how fashion-hacking can advance decolonization for Canadian Aboriginal peoples, says the following when asked about her experience conducting research within the program:

“Fashion at Ryerson has provided me with the opportunity to expand my personal creative practice into every aspect of my theoretical research and allowed me to incorporate my personal relationship to indigenous culture and research. The program and professors had been very flexible and encouraging of diverse epistemologies and methodologies, which challenge the Western research paradigms expected in an academic environment.”

Students’ MRPs are reviewed both by their supervisors and an assigned second reader, offering them guidance through this large research undertaking. The culmination of the program arrives when students present their completed projects to classmates, faculty, family, and friends at the end of their second year, prior to final revisions and the submission of their Major Research Project.

Because both creative and written projects are welcomed, these presentations offer a variety of perspectives on fashion studies and may include apparel designs, student-led media publications, and videos alongside material culture and clothing, visual culture, and written research in the realm of fashion. Current Program Director, Dr. Kimberley Wahl, further explains this milestone:

“For their Major Research Project (MRP) students can pursue creative, written, or interdisciplinary work which addresses a range of emerging areas in fashion studies: sustainability, diversity, inclusion and identity/body image, human-centered design, and the material and visual study of dress cultures across a range of diverse contexts and settings.”

Fashion Studies  Issue 1 launch event, hosted by the Centre for Fashion Diversity & Social Change at Verity, May 2018. Featuring event moderators and panelists (left to right): Dr. Ben Barry, Dr. Alison Matthews David, Lesley Hampton, Elizabeth Semmelhack, Dr. Charlene Lau, Dr. Eliza Chandler, and Keisha McPherson. Photo: Alexander La.

Fashion Studies Issue 1 launch event, hosted by the Centre for Fashion Diversity & Social Change at Verity, May 2018. Featuring event moderators and panelists (left to right): Dr. Ben Barry, Dr. Alison Matthews David, Lesley Hampton, Elizabeth Semmelhack, Dr. Charlene Lau, Dr. Eliza Chandler, and Keisha McPherson. Photo: Alexander La.

Creating A Fashion Community

In the MA in Fashion program, students are encouraged to be active members of the fashion studies community. From presenting at conferences to volunteering at events in order to learn about dress from both an academic and industry perspective, students are given opportunities to get involved in Toronto’s fashion culture. Importantly, students are also able to collaborate with one another; as Presley Mills explains:

“The community in the program has been so supportive and fun. Everyone comes from a different academic/professional background but we all have something in common—fashion—which really brings us together. The people I have met through school and my research have been the most valuable part of my experience at Ryerson.”

Ryan Chantree, a first-year MA student with a fine arts background, whose arts-based research explores non-binary clothing, echoes these thoughts: “It’s been really lovely how supportive everyone is.” For Ryan, the small class size and accommodating professors and faculty members have contributed to this program environment. As a student I, too, felt that the community support fostered within the program kept me inspired and focused throughout the degree. The conversations, debates, and discussions surrounding fashion studies shaped my outlook towards studying fashion and continue to guide my research following the completion of my MA degree.

Fashion, Diversity, and Social Change

Our commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion—this is core to our vision and at the centre of what we do.
— Dr. Ben Barry

The values that I have identified as part of the MA in Fashion—interdisciplinary research in mixed media formats, learning opportunities both in and outside of the classroom, and creating a community of fashion scholars—culminate in an overarching ideal that has helped to shape the program: utilizing fashion to create positive social change. The Chair of the School of Fashion, Dr. Ben Barry, exemplifies this ideal in his own research and in the programs focused on diversity and inclusion that he has implemented. As Dr. Barry explains, “[The School of Fashion] is unique in our focus on redesigning the fashion system… recognizing that when we create clothing, we’re creating it for people.” For Dr. Barry, this involves not just critiquing the fashion industry, but also understanding how students can utilize research and the design process to facilitate industry, system, and social transformation. Dr. Barry continues: “Our commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion—this is core to our vision and at the centre of what we do. Our faculty, too, are teaching fashion from that lens—they are very aware of the social, the environmental, and the political.”

The School of Fashion supports the Centre for Fashion Diversity & Social Change, created and led by Dr. Ben Barry, as well as a management committee made up of School of Fashion faculty. The Centre hosts innovative projects and events that are free for students, including the annual Diversity NOW! lecture series, focused on utilizing fashion to foster diversity and representation. According to Dr. Barry, the Centre started as a research hub that would represent the shared values and research interests of the school, and recognizing that one of the School of Fashion’s core principles was teaching and researching fashion that is inclusive, accessible, and focused on decolonizing society. Dr. Barry explains: “The goal was twofold: to support research that advances social change, and research that uses diverse methodologies and ways of knowing, and bringing these researchers together; both social science and research methodologies and creative and practice based methodologies.” However, Dr. Barry continues, there weren’t a lot of outlets that published this type of research, and it is for this reason that the Centre is responsible for the creation and publishing of Fashion Studies, the previously mentioned open access, academic journal, co-edited by Dr. Barry and School of Fashion faculty member and previous Graduate Director Dr. Alison Matthews David. Fashion Studies allows its issues to be shared publicly and freely, without any cost to authors or readers, an important movement both in and outside of fashion, making research more accessible and adding a valuable resource for MA Fashion students interested in academic publishing.

What Now?

Two years later and a 2018 graduate of the MA in Fashion program, I have chosen to continue researching at Ryerson University, this time as a PhD student. Michel Ghanem also expresses his interest in pursuing a doctoral degree after graduating:

“It has been nearly a year since the completion of the program, and I am working for the Centre for Fashion Diversity & Social Change, and crafting my PhD applications with the enthusiasm and excitement the program inspired. With the guidance of my supervisor, the faculty and staff, and other graduate students, I felt confident to continue finding authenticity in my research and pursuing a career in academia.”

As well, two of the MA Fashion students interviewed for this article, Romana Mirza and Azadeh Monzavi, were recently accepted into the Communication & Culture doctoral program at Ryerson University. MA Fashion graduates go on to pursue careers within the academy, industry, or both, as 2017 graduate Ketzia Sherman did. Ketzia’s Major Research Project centered on how to study tattooing without looking at tattoo imagery, resulting in a public, co-curated exhibition in Toronto of her creative work in this area, entitled “Remixing Tradition.” For Ketzia, tattooing remains at the centre of her career focus, grounded by her time at Ryerson; her Master’s degree, she explains, is what gave her a large enough portfolio to apply for tattooing apprenticeships and jobs following her graduation. Today, Ketzia works at a tattoo shop called Heartstrong Tattoo, has her own Etsy shop where she sells tattoo-inspired embroidery, and teaches at OCAD University and Humber College, as well as having taught at Ryerson. Ketzia cites the focus on creative as well as traditional research, alongside the encouraging nature of the faculty, as essential to her professional success. She also notes that one of her main goals is to integrate diversity into the tattooing industry through the designs she creates and models she portrays. This, she explains, is a direct, continued influence from her time with the MA Fashion program.

The MA in Fashion program at Ryerson both prepared and inspired me to continue with graduate studies and researching my passions and interests in a way that encompasses multiple perspectives and recognizes diversity and accessibility. The School of Fashion is where I learned to be critical of fashion while also believing in its potential as a force for positive social action and change. Fashion, as many scholars will already know, is often not taken seriously; it is easy to dismiss clothing, accessories, and aesthetics, despite their irrefutable influence on identity and society. Despite this, fashion is a persistent, undeniable aspect of our collective human histories and experiences. Recognizing where fashion has succeeded as well as failed, and how very far we still have to go in positively yielding fashion’s influence, is among the important lessons I learned during my time as a master’s student at the School of Fashion.

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