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Jane Tynan on Taking a Critical Approach to Fashion Studies

keffiyeh – Flickr
keffiyeh – Flickr
Keffiyeh by Rami Arafat
Written by
Colin Buttimer
Published date
23 November 2015
Keffiyeh by Rami Arafat

Keffiyeh – Rami Arafat

Jane Tynan, MA Fashion Communication: Fashion Critical Studies pathway Course Leader, spoke to us about the importance of taking a critical approach to fashion, the exciting projects her students take part in and her own background in the subject. If you want to find out more about the course please visit the course page and book your place on one of the open days. 

What initially inspired you to get into the critical study of fashion? 

I started in art history but moved into fashion history because it looked more interesting. Those taking a cultural studies approach to researching fashion also inspired me. Fashion brought me closer to understanding what people do in their everyday life – the artful ways in which people dress, how they transform themselves. It seemed to me that clothing had great potential for anybody interested in human experience. Fashion gets close to the body and impacts people’s lives in a special way. 

What brought you into teaching? 

I have been teaching and researching since my 20s. Getting across complex ideas to students has, for me, been a great way to test my own thinking. Once I started teaching I found it very rewarding – research and teaching feed one another. Working through ideas and concepts with students helps me to think more clearly and, of course, working with ambitious people is always inspiring. 

Your personal research work looks closely at topics such as the importance of fashion during WWI. Is the field of critical studies in fashion quite an open one? 

Yes, it is wide open, but this is something new. It started to develop in the 1990s and since the early 2000s publishing in the area of fashion history and theory has exploded. It’s not surprising though. There are so many big questions that fashion and clothing touch upon: political, social, economic and cultural. The area is very exciting at the moment and when I started to work on war and fashion I found very little research on this topic. My own research is about the politics of fashion, and currently I look at uniforms, mostly military clothing, which raises many questions about how power is played out in conflicts.

Is cross-disciplinary study an intrinsic feature of the Critical Studies pathway? Where can it take you? 

Yes it is a key feature. We offer a fresh perspective on the cultural importance of fashion, and being in Central Saint Martins means that students can make links with other areas of art and design. It’s really important to us that students gain the skills to communicate within the fashion industry but we also want them to contribute to wider cultural debates. There are so many topics they might deal with including branding, sustainability, cultural diversity in the industry, art and fashion, body image, dress and ethnicity, sexuality. CSM is an exciting environment for people interested in the politics of fashion. Our course takes fashion seriously to create smart and dynamic professionals who will work in museums, journalism, academia and business research. Our graduates have various destinations – fashion media, journalism, museum work, business research or academia. 

There has been a notable growth in magazines that look at fashion from an academic and critical perspective. Where do you think this has stemmed from? 

I think people are tired of fashion being characterized as trivial and superficial. Yes, fashion is fun but there is also an appetite for serious thinking about the social meaning of fashion. It is a huge global industry that gives people a lot of pleasure (and pain) so we need to reflect on its social meaning. Also, with so many new media platforms there is room for more serious writing on fashion. But fashion is simply the latest popular pleasure – following on from film, magazines, TV – that academia and news media are prepared to take seriously. The MA in Fashion Critical Studies engages with the new media environment but prepares students to be intellectually rigorous in their approach to the history and cultures of fashion. 

Are you currently working on any of your own projects? 

I am currently making a radio programme on what transport workers wear – why they wear uniforms and how they feel about them. Also, I am writing a journal article on the Middle Eastern keffiyeh: what started out as a traditional scarf worn by Arab men, then become associated with the Palestinian cause and has more recently been transformed into a popular fashion accessory. It is a controversial garment with a fascinating history. 

What have been some of your favourite topics that students have worked on during the course? 

In the first year of the course we had a student working on cultural appropriation.
She researched the underlying issues of postcolonialism, race and cultural ownership. European and American fashion consumers are ‘appropriating,’ amongst other things, Indian bindis and Native American headdresses as fashion items, behaviour which critics see as culturally insensitive. She developed a very interesting research project asking what motivates people to take on dress rituals that are not their own. But she also found something in the new flows of digital media that was generating debate across various cultures and regions. The focus might be on fashion practices, but the cultural appropriation debate, I suspect, reveals a lot about the legacy of colonialism. Once again, it reminds us that fashion is revealing of deeper cultural transformations and that style matters.