"Fashion as Design" — Lessons I Learned from Studying Fashion History

How well do you know your closet?

No, I am not asking how many pairs of jeans you own or how much money you splurge to build the dream closet. I am curious about how well you know the history of your clothes. When did the white T-shirt you put on almost everyday first introduced? What kind of people used to wear your staple winter piece? How does your favorite pair of Chuck Taylor become so popular among teens?

The course I took a few weeks ago on Coursera, "Fashion as Design" by MoMA, aims to build the relationship with student’s closets. Based on the exhibition "Is Fashion Modern?", the course introduced fashion pieces that influenced the world culturally, environmentally, politically and socially.

"Like other kinds of design, fashion thrives on productive tensions between form and function, automation and craftsmanship, standardization and customization, universality and self-expression, and pragmatism and utopian vision."

—"Fashion as Design" course Introduction

MoMA Senior Curator Paola Antonelli introduces MoMA's first fashion exhibition "Is Fashion Modern?" in over seventy years.

At the end of the course, students are asked to propose a short essay with two items in their wardrobes, explaining their origins and how students shift their perspectives. Having a lot of fun creating and writing, I thought it’ll be perfect to share more about it here. These are the two items I proposed:

0001 (1).jpg

le smoking

Jeans aren’t the "just throw them on" pants as people say when you belong to pear-shaped body type. For the longest time, I wandered around all kind of bottom pieces but none of them fit perfectly. Then I tried on my first pair of cigarette pants a few years ago, the nightmare was long gone. Now I owned 4 pairs of cigarette pants in different colors, lengths, and fabrics.

(And I live happily ever after.)

Marlene Dietrich was already in men’s suits on TV shows in the 1930’s, but people then only thought she was out of her mind. Little did they know, later in 1966, men’s suits had never looked so good on women when Yves Saint Laurent first introduced "Le Smoking". It was his interpretation of tuxedo, along with softer tailoring to fit woman’s body, but still remained the geometric silhouette men’s tux has. Le Smoking was how modern women looked like in Yves’s eyes. He was a real feminist and unisex-ist, believing in modern women’s potentials.

Revolution began when Saint Laurent presented Le Smoking on the runway. Virile and sexy, feminine and free, mysterious and modern, Le Smoking was the dream to every woman in the 60’s. Le Smoking offers women chances to explore in fashion, and that means blurring the boundary between two sex.

It is not always about how the clothes look, but what it stands for. And Saint Laurent wanted all the women in Le Smoking to understand that. Learning about the outfit really change the way I feel when putting on my cigarette trousers— more fearless and unapologetic.

0001 (2).jpg


I developed my love for turtleneck last winter because it literally goes with everything in my wardrobe. And I’m not even planning to stop storing more colors this winter!

The history of turtleneck dates way back to 16th century. Layers of opulent laces which tightly hugging around Queen Elizabeth I’s neck are not only the symbol of nobility but the origin of the turtleneck. Then fast forward to 20th century, where turtleneck has completely changed its forms and influenced widely such as Audrey Hepburn in the film "Funny Face", the 60’s Beatnick classic looks and Steve Jobs’ iconic outfit with jeans and ugly sneakers. Now? It is the key in putting together every stylish look.

Before the course, it was just a clothing piece which suits me flawlessly. Yet it is so thrilling to understand how turtleneck has come such a long way to maintain its place as a must-have in everyone’s wardrobe.

So, Kai, is fashion modern?

The word "modern" is "relating to the present or recent times as opposed to the remote past." (Thank you, Oxford Dictionary.) Compared to fashion in the past, where there were only two genders: women in corsets and men without makeups. Fashion is undoubtedly modern now. It relies on computer technology to mass produce clothes. People share their sexuality and personalities through it. It is also related to environmental pollution, political protests, and even self-identification.

Modern fashion does come with both good things and bad influences. Our biggest challenge nowadays is how to make fashion better— socially and environmentally? Only by considering fashion as a whole— to know the past and present, then foresee the future, can we really find the solutions.