A Digital Humanities Project: The Fashion and Race Database

During the first four years of teaching at The New School as a fashion studies scholar and a professor of color, I was faced with a challenge: there was a dearth of historical and pedagogical resources for exploring fashion history and theory outside of the Western canon–particularly when it came to how race has influenced aesthetics and access to ‘fashionability.’ Upon developing and teaching the fall 2016 elective course ‘Fashion and Race’ at Parsons School of Design, I considered the academic and professional landscape that my students were navigating. Ultimately, based upon my research and dialogue within the classroom, the students emphasized a demand for more curricular materials and educators that were readily equipped to accommodate their cultural and racialized lived experiences. The challenges present within my teaching and lived experience reinforced this concern, as fashion history and theory curricula within most academic institutions reveal a deficit in resources and perspectives made available to an ever-changing student demographic.

The social problem of systemic racism and the residual effects of colonialism has experienced increased coverage in the media, and we have diverse (specifically, racialized) identities in need of safe and supportive spaces amidst an increasingly precarious political landscape. In terms of educational spaces, educators and students are faced with new obstacles in challenging the limits to authenticating citizenship and a sense of belonging.

Students conducting a visual analysis exercise for the course ‘Fashion and Race’ at Parsons School of Design, 2016. Photo credit: Kim Jenkins

I propose that it is through a re-assessment and radical revision of the curricula for fashion history, theory, and design that a deepened understanding and an expanded vision of human cultural and historical memory can be established. The first concern is to create resources for fashion professionals and educators who are not fully equipped to address and teach fashion history and theory outside of the Western lens. This is where the Fashion and Race Database Project comes in. 

The goal for The Fashion and Race Database Project is to provide a dedicated platform with open-source that address the intersection of power, privilege, representation, and aesthetics within the fashion system. Those tools will include, but not be limited to:


  • Articles & Studies:
    • Essays that celebrate pivotal moments of diversity and inclusion in fashion and opinion editorials that address and advocate for equitable representation in fashion
    • Profiles written about notable, racially marginalized figures in fashion (‘hidden figures,’ if you will)
    • Case studies that address race as a power mechanism in the business of fashion–particularly when it comes to retail and employment discrimination, racial profiling, cultural appropriation and a persistent lack of inclusion.
    • Brief, encyclopedic entries that identify and define fashion objects or elements of style that respond to mechanisms of power as it is connected to race (for example, the zoot suit, the durag, the Tignon Law of 1786)
  • Resources: Multimedia resources (books, films, etc.) that organize and underscore the research and continued dialogue going on about race, colonialism and systemic oppression
  • Events & Announcements: A calendar of events, calls for papers, notifications of professional and creative opportunities that center and support people of color and minoritized individuals

At its core, the impetus and value of The Fashion and Race Database Project is centered on expanding our cultural and historical memory within fashion and proposing new fashion futures that respond to today’s real world affairs and work to reconcile a partisan history. The success and future for this project will benefit from funding and institutional sponsorship, and the plan of action for its next steps will be as follows:

Second phase plans with increased funding:

  • Compensation for contributors
  • Lesson plans, bibliographies and discourse-based exercises that advance our literacy of fashion history, theory and dress practice when it comes to the power dynamics of race
  • Collaborations with classrooms from numerous institutions, generating student-contributed content
  • Collaborations with select organizations to contribute content
  • Broaden the database of fashion designers and influencers of color to include original biographies and supporting media (i.e. videos, audio interviews)
  • Establish a social media presence that sparks a dialogue outside of The Fashion and Race Database website platform

Plans with sponsorship:

  • Organize a conference or symposium that further decentralizes fashion history, showcasing the work of individuals who are expanding literacy and representation in fashion.
  • Publish a zine or edited volume that features select work from our contributors

Image: “Rest in Peace” by Fabiola Jean-Louis

The Fashion and Race Database Project went live on October 1, 2018. As a work in progress, I encourage feedback, questions or resource recommendations. In addition, I am open to collaborations, workshops and providing presentations to schools, institutions, collectives and business organizations.

Find it here: www.fashionandrace.com and contact us here.

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