Fashion and Textiles Studies: History, Theory, and Museum Practice

When it comes to fashion history graduate programs, the pickings are slim.  I think a lot of people aren't even aware that these programs exist, to be honest, and since I also think FIT's is the best, I'd like to put in a plug for it to the fashion historians out there who are considering a Master's.

-          The professors are amazing and extremely experienced in their fields.  You would have to go a long way to find people who know more about fashion/decorative arts history or conservation.

-          The classes are on a broad variety of subjects.  In some ways, I can see how this might be a drawback – if you're sure you just want to learn straight fashion history, being forced to spend time on building things with blue board sounds like a waste of time.  However, learning conservation and collections management skills goes a long way towards making you employable in a variety of museums.  And the classes offer a lot of intersection: if you're interested in a particular period, you can make most papers relate to it in some way.

-          There's a good amount of practical work mixed in with the academic.  Building boxes out of blue board, making alternate mounts for objects or garments, dressing mannequins, practicing different stitches, bleaching soiled clothing, performing adhesive treatments …it's just nice to not have all of your work be papers, and it makes you feel like you're really doing something.  Also …

-          You build up a varied portfolio to show future employers.  I have a stitch notebook, a conservation portfolio, a dozen condition reports/catalogue entries, a sketch/pattern notebook, an exhibition history, an exhibition proposal, and several object-based research papers.

-          You get experiences you honestly won't find anywhere else.  Over the past two years, I've had several behind-the-scenes tours at the Met, and meetings at places like Prelle, the Merchant House Museum, the Museum of Art and Design, and St. John the Divine.  Within the last year, we did our own exhibition on Vivienne Westwood, which got a lot of press and attracted a ton of attention, and held our own symposium; we did all of the writing and design for the exhibition, and organized everything for the symposium.  These just do. not. happen. elsewhere.

-         Public education!  State schools are extremely important, and by attending one you help to support the system.  You also do not have to pay as much tuition, even if you're from out of state.

 I'm not trying to be hard on other programs.  I don't know a lot about them, and I'm sure they have good points.  But I think ours is very special, and I just wanted to share that with everyone as I leave it.  *blows nose*


  1. Hi, hopefully youre still checking your blog...
    I think I'll apply to FIT, but I need to know if there's any differences to steinhart's program. Im from sweden so its kind of hard to find good information... Id be so grateful if you could answer me and just give me some advice..
    Email me!

  2. Lisa,

    I'm so glad you asked me about the two programs! I love talking about this stuff.

    The basic difference between the two is that the FIT program is mainly about teaching students museum skills as they apply to textiles and fashion objects - how to store them, how to display them, how to research them, how to write labels for them; the courses are mixed between curatorial skills (designing exhibitions, writing text, researching history), conservation skills (physical repair, bleaching, identifying fiber content), and collections management skills (creating storage mounts, monitoring for pests and fungus, installing costumes on mannequins - and the NYU Steinhardt program is a more anthropological approach, focusing on the history of clothing and the study of clothes as they are worn today in many cultures. I believe that the NYU program is helpful if you want to go into curation at a large museum, if you want to teach the history of fashion, or if you want to write academically or professionally about modern fashion; the FIT program is helpful if you want to work in a large museum, or in a smaller museum or house museum (where you may have to do both curation and collections management and/or work with decorative arts objects), or if you want to go into conservation or antiques appraisal.

    Both programs put on symposia, but they're not exactly the same. The NYU students write their theses while still attending classes and then present them to an audience; FIT students have a symposium topic chosen and then write papers for that topic, then have a year after finishing classes to write a thesis. The FIT students also create and present mock exhibition proposals individually, and then do a real exhibition together, which is good practice but incredibly stressful.

    You may have seen these, but here is the NYU curriculum and here is the FIT curriculum, so you can see the types of classes offered.

  3. Lisa,

    Hey, I go to the NYU program and thought I'd give my two cents about it.

    Mimic of Modes is right in that it's a different focus than FIT. It really depends on what you want out of your program. FIT offers the more practical approach. NYU offers a theoretical approach. Anthropological is a good way to describe the program. We really delve into the meanings of dress and fashion, how it influences and was influenced by social/cultural/economic/political factors, and the deeper psychology behind fashion. It's a very interdisciplinary approach, looking at how fashion functions within the broader historic spectrum. Like at FIT, there's room to develop your own focus. So far all our paper topics have been general enough that you can really focus on a period you love (I'm focusing on the 18th century, in the same projects my friend is focusing on the last 10 years). You will also get practical stuff. There's two different exhibition design classes and a conservation class you can take if you're interested in museum work, and I believe the second years are curating an exhibit in one of the exhibition spaces in the Barney building at the end of the year. The class you take your first semester, Literature and Methodology, is a really great thing for practical knowledge. You learn how to write a proposal, an exhibition label, etc.

    The other great thing about NYU is that you can really build your own program based on what you want to focus on. You aren't limited to classes within the program, or even within Steinhardt. You can take a variety, so for example if you're really interested in fashion in film you can take cinema studies courses through Tisch. One thing I specialize in is dance costumes, so I'm thinking of taking a History of Dance class next semester. And the teachers are all amazing and not only smart bur really approachable. I enjoy chatting with all of them about this and that before classes start.

  4. Lisa,
    just drop by while googling the web.
    Does it really matter that people have basic knowledge about fashion or has studied a bachelor degree related to fashion?
    As I am studying English in university in Hong Kong but there is not much option or I should say well-developed master fashion programme in Hong Kong.
    Thank you for answering my question.

    1. No - actually, it's preferred that students have a background in anthropology, art history, or history. That's not a requirement, though. When I was there, nearly everyone came from a different background. Selling yourself in your essay is more important.


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