Interview: Eugenia Paulicelli
As part of an effort to contextualize and conceptualize the field that is Fashion Studies, we will be interviewing notable figures in the discipline and sharing their insights in an ongoing series.
Our first subject is Dr. Eugenia Paulicelli, the founder and director of the Fashion Studies program at The Graduate Center at The City University of New York — the first academic program on the interdisciplinary study of fashion granting both master's and doctoral degrees. She is an expert on the theory and history of fashion, as well as a professor of Italian Studies, Comparative Literature, and Women’s Studies at Queens College and The Graduate Center, CUNY.
Dr. Paulicelli has taught courses on fashion cultures, film and screen media, Italian literature and national identity, and created The Fabric of Cultures, a research and pedagogical lab that aims at a deeper understanding of fashion and local/global clothing as powerful manifestations of human and aesthetic expression and as barometers of economic, social and technological transformations. She has curated numerous exhibitions (most recently, The Fabric of Cultures: Systems in the Making at Queens College Art Center) and her research examines how fashion functions as an industry and as a symbolic force, mediated across time and space.
This interview was conducted by Marcella Martin.
The Fashion Studies Journal: Tell us a little bit about the various “hats” you wear in your work with Queens College and The Graduate Center.
Eugenia Paulicelli: Interesting question. I started my postgraduate studies in the US after coming from Italy with the desire to pursue an academic career. It was in the US that I began to look at my own culture from a different perspective. I have always had a passion for literature, film, fashion and the arts and I have followed these passions and threads, which later found a cohesion and a structure in the study of fashion. It all started with a paper I wrote in my French Critical Theory class when I was studying for my PhD. That was in 1989. From then on, fashion has become a parallel project I pursued while completing my PhD in Italian Studies.
When I moved to Queens College I was hired as an Italianist, so this is one of the hats I wear. But it is not the only one. Meanwhile, I developed my research on fashion and found the areas that were important to me. I realized that through fashion I could uncover important dynamics and relations with politics, power, the history of women, gender and aesthetics. In the following years, I focused on the relationship between fashion and the construction of national identity and started to define my primary and secondary sources, for instance approaching Italian fashion magazines from a scholarly perspective in the light of the cultural politics of the time, film, LUCE newsreels, etc. This kind of research informed my book Fashion under Fascism, which came out in 2004. Parallel to this I went ahead with my research on fashion and the Renaissance, since this is a crucial period for Italian culture and the "imagined" nation. While conducting my research, I also started to design courses at the graduate and undergraduate levels that focused on fashion with a rigorous theoretical and historical framework. I have been continuing to work in this direction in different levels of pedagogy and research and in different domains and programs at Queens and The CUNY Graduate Center. I am always open to collaboration with other scholars, students in my own institution, but also across NYC.
What inspired you to establish the Fashion Studies Concentration at the Graduate Center?
It began in 2002 when I organized a two-day international academic conference on Italian Fashion at The Graduate Center, CUNY. The conference received the generous support and patronage of the Italian Cultural Institute and the Italian Trade Commission, as well as support from programs and departments at CUNY. My aim with the conference was to prove that the study of fashion was serious and deserved to be included and studied in an academic environment. I wanted fashion to be studied in graduate schools that granted PhD degrees, not just in fashion and design schools. Secondly, I wanted to bring to the fore that Italian fashion needed to be studied in a transnational context underlining how it had played and still plays a key role not only in the history of Italian culture and art, but also in the global history of culture, arts and design. Italian culture has made huge contributions to writing and establishing a theory of fashion and clothing that goes back to the Romans, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It was here that thanks to print culture the power of fashion was certified, which still today is often underestimated, not to say ignored, in the field of both Fashion and Italian Studies.
The 2002 conference was very successful and created a great deal of interest among scholars (established and non, as well as PhD students from different schools). On the back of the conference, we created a “Fashion Studies Forum.” The first speakers were two professors from The Graduate Center, Professor of Anthropology Jane Schneider with Professor David Harvey as respondent. The event was packed, standing room only. Work on establishing fashion continued in the form of extra work beyond the academic teaching load, administrative duties for my departments (at Queens College and The Graduate Center). With Professor of Psychology, Joseph Glick, I took the next step, which was to design experimental, interdisciplinary PhD courses in Fashion Studies.
These proved to be very successful and pushed us to design a Concentration in Fashion Studies at the Graduate Center, which was approved in 2007. Later, I designed the track in Fashion Studies in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies, approved in 2011. Meanwhile, I had been collaborating with other CUNY colleagues in Fashion Studies who were either at The Graduate Center already or were about to be appointed. Our strength is that fashion can be studied and approached from different angles. Students in the Fashion Studies track are encouraged to connect their interest in fashion with other disciplines in the humanities, sciences and social sciences. The students have been successful in taking advantage of this kind of exposure and interdisciplinary framework. I can say that we have made the best with the resources we have had at our disposal. Our students have gone on to pursue PhDs at Yale and Pompeu Fabra where they are completing dissertations focused on fashion and clothing cultures. Other CUNY PhDs have found teaching jobs at FIT, Fordham University, Brooklyn College, BMCC and here at The Graduate Center. Our MA graduates have also found teaching jobs at CUNY’s City Tech and Pratt Institue; others are librarians, some work in the fashion industry in different capacities. We do not have a department in Fashion Studies and so interested students take classes and pursue their research in the field in allied PhD programs.
Last fall you curated an exhibition on the Fabric of Cultures: Systems in the Making. Can you speak about the origins of the project and this new installment?
This is a project I initially created back in the early 2000s. As I developed new courses in the culture, history and theory of fashion I became fascinated by the history of cloth and textile, which are the foundation of dress. Queens College is located at the heart of a very diverse community, one of the most diverse boroughs in the US. While teaching fashion culture to this student body, I was inspired to explore with them their cultures, languages, family traditions and the significance of clothing for them in both a local and global context. I also found out we had two collections of dress and textiles at Queens College. I made a proposal to the Godwin-Ternbach Museum to work on an exhibition. They agreed and the exhibition was held at the museum in the spring of 2006. The project then focused on “Fashion, Identity, Globalization,” the subtitle of “The Fabric of Cultures” project. Again, this proved to be very successful and since then I have gone on to develop it into a pedagogic and research laboratory, but also as a place of dialogue with other scholars, curators and practitioners.
During the exhibition, I also taught a class with the same name at the CUNY Graduate Center and organized a one day conference held at the Graduate Center, and several lectures with the museum at Queens. Almost all of the speakers at the conference in 2006 were included in the book The Fabric of Cultures: Fashion, Identity, Globalization, published by Routledge in 2008. I invited Professor Hazel Clark from Parsons The New School for Design, to co-sponsor the conference and co-edit the volume. Two essays in the anthology were written by PhD students enrolled in the 2006 Fabric of Cultures class. In the following years, as well as publishing articles and books, I became more and more interested in giving the project new life by aligning it with other domains such as digital humanities, the art of making, craft and technology, labor and diasporic communities. I received support from the Center for Teaching and Learning at Queens College to build a website and so add a new dimension to the projects with new research questions and interrogations. I also designed new undergraduate and graduate courses including workshops with designers or makers with whom the students were engaged and made objects.
At the same time, I started to conceptualize the 2017 exhibition in view of the gallery space available at Queens College. I also initiated new collaborations and partnerships. Since the topic is very broad, I wanted to give a special focus to the fall 2017 exhibition keeping it within a broad, inclusive and global context. For these reasons, the focus was on the Made in Italy, which for the Fabric of Cultures: Systems in the Making angle was a perfect fit. Our specific aim was to explore the new Made in Italy, which means not only the latest experiments in sustainable production, but also a new historiography of the concept, the industry, the culture of the Made in Italy and its complex and rich context in and now outside of Italy. This was also an opportunity to rethink how we study Italy and configure Italian Studies. The exhibition offered a great opportunity to involve the students who had taken my classes. Their work was also put on display. The exhibition also brought to life (literally, from a 1908 photograph) the Tanagra Dress, designed and made by Rosa Genoni (1867-1954), an Italian seamstress, a teacher, a writer and peace activist. One of my MA students is a professional pattern maker. It was she who brought the design to life, reinterpreted it in modern terms in the context of the recent debate on fashion and feminism, activism, labor and ethical issues, sustainability. The dress she made was also the result of an ongoing dialogue and collaboration with students, which is why we displayed Genoni’s dress next to the “Peace Dress” by contemporary designer Silvia Giovanardi. Genoni’s dress, with its draping and movement, as can be seen in the video we made of the dress being worn by two models, undermines the traditional boundaries of “western” and “eastern dress.” We paired it, in fact, with a Sari. This was one of the focal points of the exhibition and can be seen as a paradigm for a new way to approach fashion/the fabric of cultures/ systems in the making. There were also other important focal points in the exhibition that I wanted to highlight such as re-use/waste (Antonio Marras); re-appropriation of local traditions in a forward-looking context (Cangiari/Goel etc.); fashion/science/sustainability as in the case of “Orange Fiber” and Ferragamo, the brand that launched the first capsule collection of this new textile obtained from citrus waste in Sicily.
Thinking about academic fashion labor, can you tell us about the experience of curating, preparing a catalog, and teaching at the same time?
A project of this scope requires a lot of work and labor that goes beyond the regular teaching load and service/administrative duties. At CUNY we have a three course a semester teaching load that can sometimes be negotiated down in view of of administrative duties, thesis advising etc. So the academic system requires a lot of juggling and balancing. It has been my primary goal and plan to incorporate teaching and research, as I am sure many of my colleagues do, while developing through the study of fashion, a new pedagogical and methodological approach to free the arts and the humanities from discipline constraints and create bridges between the humanities and other disciplines. My aims and interests are in investigating the praxis aspect and linking the two concepts of knowing and making. These concepts are explored in a variety of modes in several disciplines such as history, the digital humanities, art, video-making. I would like to add Fashion Studies to this list. What I mean by this is that now, more than ever, it is crucial to add a “hands on” component to the classroom, any kind of classroom, whether foreign language, history, or literature. The novelty in my view, and a very welcome one, is that through the study of fashion, clothing and textile, we can open up new research and pedagogy initiatives in disciplinary areas that were once confined to the museum, worlds of design and fashion, and Home Economics departments. Now I think the time is ripe to interrogate these old boundaries not only in articles and books but in the making and restructuring of academic domains, programs and departments. I am, of course, aware that this is a very long shot and also requires labor intensive work, political choices and collaborations among scholars within one’s institution and beyond. However, my aim as a scholar and educator has always been and it will always continue on this path no matter what the fads and fashions demand and dictate.
How do you think this experience relates to fashion studies as a multidisciplinary field?
As I have already explained, because of my critical theory/literary criticism training, the way fashion developed in the context of my research, the nature of the institution in which I work and the exposure of fashion in larger domains that embrace the aesthetics, the political, the technological, the body etc. Fashion Studies is and cannot be other than multidisciplinary. However, I must say that in order to do this it is crucial to elaborate a method that seeks points of contacts in which different disciplines can intersect and connect. This also requires not only reading sources that at first seem very distant from each other but also incorporates a dialogue with specialists in other fields who can bring knowledge and scholarly advancement.
How do you see the state of academic fashion labor and how do you think it will change in the future?
I see that fashion is now studied in many departments and programs. Of course, I am happy about that. But, I also see that many young people who are contributing to the expansion of the field and work hard find adjunct positions with little stability. Perhaps we should think of ways to fix or at least ameliorate this. I also see that people who would like to embark on PhDs in fashion have a hard time finding a departmental home. Is there something that we could do about this as well? We are at a stage in which we might wish to have an open, frank and inclusive debate about fashion in higher education and what kind of PhDs can and should be pursued, and where. I have often asked colleagues in the New York area to discuss these issues and we have done so to some extent, but we need to do more. In NY we have always have a million things to do. Nevertheless, I strongly believe that a more robust discussion needs to take place. It is urgent for us to find ways in which we can collaborate in creating new structures. An academic consortium of some sort may be one answer. I am of course happy to further this discussion to whoever is interested.