By Melissa Estelle '11
Students in Professor Vanessa James's new course, Twentieth-Century Fashion, have been given a rare opportunity: Not only are they learning about couture clothing from the last 150 years, but some of them are actually wearing it.
In her entertaining and informative lectures on fashion and the social context of style trends, James allows interested students to model couture clothing through the years, from Lanvin to Lagerfeld.
"I offered this course as a seminar a few years ago, and I could have filled it six times over," she said. This spring, Twentieth-Century Fashion was offered as a lecture in Rooke Theatre to accommodate that student enthusiasm—and there are now 118 students enrolled, making the course one of the largest offered at Mount Holyoke. Though most fashion courses tend to focus on nineteenth-century trends, James-- who also chairs the theatre arts department--knew she wanted to take a different approach.
"Theatre students in particular need to know about what people were wearing at what time in order to put on realistic productions," she said.
"The class isn't just superfluous information about fashion," added Sarah Racicot '13. "You can also see how what people wear reflects the time in which they lived."
Now known internationally for her contributions to costume design, set design, and art direction, James began her career working in New York City under the wing of legendary pop artist, filmmaker, and style icon Andy Warhol. In the 1980s, she became a pioneer of wearable art, and designed her own line of plastic and rubber clothing. She also began collecting couture clothing by Chanel, Dior, Halston, and others. She has more than 300 pieces by Emilio Pucci alone, making her collection of the Italian designer's couture clothing second in size only to that of Pucci himself.
With that background and the help of four students, James began researching and gathering materials for the class last spring; her student assistants also served as her stage models during lectures. Theatre arts major and student model Anna Rose Keefe '13 helped put together the images for the course.
"We always look forward to seeing what clothes Vanessa will bring in each week," said Keefe. "One week I'll be looking at photos and thinking that these gowns are some of the most beautiful things I've ever seen, and the next week I'll be trying them on. It's an amazing experience. Vanessa knows so much about fashion, and I love hearing her anecdotes, because so much of what she knows isn't in books or online."
Due to an overwhelming interest in modeling, James invited the class to join in, and another ten students contacted her, hoping to don the couture gowns from her vast personal collection. On April 5, she dedicated an entire class to Emilio Pucci, and she invited anyone in the course who wished to model one of his creations to do so on the aptly titled Pucci Day. The event attracted more than 40 additional students to the stage.
"It was a bit unbelievable to have the chance to wear clothes that are almost like a piece of history now," said Racicot, one of the volunteer models.
Along with Missoni, Pucci was one of two major Italian designers in the 1950s and 1960s. He was involved in the manufacture and use of stretch fabrics, and he's credited with creating the first functional stretch ski and swimwear, the overblouse (or tunic), and the Capri pant. He is perhaps best known for his silk jersey shift dresses, often designed in bold colors and patterns. His designs were worn by a myriad of fashion icons of the 1960s, from Jacqueline Kennedy to Marilyn Monroe.
James started collecting Pucci pieces after a director she was working for in the 1960s gave her a Pucci overblouse on the opening night of a production.
"I started looking for more Pucci in thrift stores in New York and couldn't stop," said James, who at the time was able to purchase the majority of the dresses in her current collection for just a few dollars. In 1977, she had the rare opportunity of coming face to face with Pucci himself when the two met at a Christie's auction.
"After collecting his clothes from thrift stores for years, he was my idol," she confessed. "I just love his designs. I think his patterns are fabulous."
Over the course of the semester, student models have also had the opportunity to wear clothing donated by alumnae to the Mount Holyoke archive, dating from the College's founding in1837 to the mid-1930s.
"How often do you get to see these clothes from history in action?" said James. "I think that makes the class more fun for students."
James encourages alumnae to donate more clothing to fill out the College's collection, particularly pieces that carry sentimental value.
"I would love to see an exhibit of Laurel Parade dresses through the years," she said.
Photos from Pucci Day were taken by Melissa Estelle '11.