Fashioning a New Course: THEA014c

As a Studio Art major, I constantly search for new art forms and ways to learn different mediums. Trained and focused as a painter, I have plunked my brush into lots of wet paint —  watercolor, oil, gauche, acrylic, ink. Always fascinated with fashion and textiles, I often experiment depicting the textures of fabrics through paint. I am specifically interested in gendered formalwear and occasion-dress and merge ideas about these clothes into painting. Last spring, I had to decide between taking ceramics or sculpture, the 3-D courses offered to satisfy the art major. Instead, I decided, neither!

 Because of my interests in fashion and textiles, I pitched an idea to complete my 3-D art credit as a design project in the Swarthmore costume shop. I developed a plan to study gendered formalwear with Professor Laila Swanson, who runs costume design in the theater department. After presenting the idea to both Professor Swanson and the director of the Studio Art Department, I was approved and the magic of Theat014c began! 

My experience linking clothing and art grew into the most incredible experience. While I spent the summer preparing Theat014c by attending clothing exhibits and reading books and articles to develop the sketch and vision of what I hoped to create, I had limited sewing abilities.  My background consisted of an excitement about my fourth grade teacher’s sewing machine and her showing me how to use it as well as years of hand sewing pointe shoe ribbons. The first week of class I could barely sew a straight line of stitches on a piece of muslin cloth. Professor Swanson was firm but caring. She gave me positive and helpful feedback and made sure I perfected her craft before moving on to create garments. Once I mastered this technical skill, my project emerged: I fused different patterns to create a muslin pattern of my own, a halter-back vest. On a trip with Professor Swanson to Jo-Ann Fabrics in Springfield, I selected fabrics.  Over several weeks, I sewed the vest as well as a companion pencil skirt. During this independent study, I learned the details and precision of sewing, pattern-making, different machines, different techniques. With both my eyes and hands, I learned how different fabrics fall, how different fabrics fit the body, and how to approach the body as a 3-D subject. 

Clothing the body, yours or someone else’s, requires using many senses. It is more complex than I imagined. Professor Swanson explained, “It is important that students know how a garment is made and how fabrics drape and fall” in order to understand how to fit it to the body to get the desired effect. Although I had spent years in life-drawing classes staring at bodies, I found Professor Swanson’s lessons working with fabric and the human body greatly improved my art.

Because I took Theat014c as a studio art credit, Professor Swanson and I discussed the ways that clothing and art are paralleled — especially in the 3-D realm.  When we apply fabric, texture, color, silhouettes we carefully chose materials and colors — this is something Professor Swanson taught me both from examples in the shop and in the fabric store. Each item has to be viewed on the mannequin form and seen how it properly drapes and falls in order to get the desired effect. These principles are the same as painting and sculpture. The natural connections between the body in fabric and the body on canvas allowed the course to be counted as an art requirement. 

Taking Theat014c as a 3-D art credit is now becoming a path of study. Merging studio art and theater makes sense. Both are visual and cerebral experiences. Furthermore, Swatties are multi-faceted and have many intellectual and creative interests. This semester, Professor Swanson has taken on two more independent students, in addition to teaching her course Costume Design and Costume History: The Greeks. Eventually, Professor Swanson is hoping the Theat014c may be an official cross-list between Theater and Art. Currently, she is planning how many students she can teach independently as well as give the full opportunities and attention to the course. Theater 014c was originally developed for students who had succeeded in her introductory costume class wanted to further explore making costumes, costume history, or mercantile history. The course is currently tailored to the individual ideas/interests/goals of the student enrolled. For example, Professor Swanson has had students design everything from period gowns with hoop skirts to creating a sample runway collection and practicing their marketing skills. Theat014c is ideal for students interested in costume design, fashion design, 3-D, clothing, and dressing.

Swanson notes that there is a “common language and fine art” in both fashion and costume design, making the course ideal for both theater and art students. She hopes to eventually incorporate film and media students as well. Professor Swanson notes that theater and art share the fine arts: fit, color, texture, functionality all go into a fashion design in the same way as costume. The only distinction is that costume is limited to a period or idea of the performance. 

Spending time learning from or even speaking with Professor Swanson reminds me why I am at Swarthmore. The blending, overlapping, tangling, and weaving of ideas makes Swat professors, students, and coursework extraordinary. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *