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Back-to-School Fashion Takes Center Stage at Costume Studies Symposium


To celebrate the 45th anniversary of its master’s program, NYU Steinhardt’s Costume Studies hosted Back to School: A Fashion Symposium. For two days, the program welcomed scholars, students, and fashion enthusiasts to the Barney Building in the East Village. The symposium explored how fashion has been created and embraced on college campuses and examined how dress historians, fashion theorists, and design practitioners have analyzed and responded to those trends.

A presenter at the Back to School costume studies symposium stands before a slide that shows Princess Diana in a Harvard University sweatshirt

Image courtesy Ryan Lee

“A focus on education seemed fitting in celebration of the program’s anniversary and for a fall event, when there is so much excitement for the possibilities of the academic year to come,” explained Rachel Lifter, Clinical Assistant Professor and Director of the Costume Studies program. “I am thrilled that we were able to host papers from scholars at all stages of their academic careers and who, in many different ways, place academic environments at the center of their research,” she continued.

Presentations analyzed a variety of topics and trends, including the marketing of back-to-school styles; dress codes at elite institutions; online trends like “Dark Academia” and sorority outfit-of-the-day TikTok videos; university dress collections; and pedagogies of the past and present. There were two keynote speakers. The first, Deirdre Clemente of the University of Nevada Las Vegas, spoke about the impact of college style on twentieth-century American fashion. The second, Reina Lewis of the London College of Fashion, spoke about the role of faith, worldview, and religious diversity in fashion education.

Conference participants eat lunch at round tables.

Image courtesy Ryan Lee

The symposium also offered graduate students the opportunity to share their research. Maria Chammah, a second-year Costume Studies MA student,  presented research on “The Harvard Sweatshirt: Too Cool for School,” which analyzed the enduring appeal of the Harvard sweatshirt and its role in constructing a university’s brand and reputation. “This was the first conference I applied to in the field,” said Chammah. “It was such a wonderful opportunity to present research in-person, especially with other established scholars.” 

After working as a lawyer and photography producer in the fashion industry, Chammah was looking for a program that aligned with her interests—and identified Costume Studies at NYU as her top choice. “It’s the perfect program. It covers history, sociology, anthropology, culture, society, and I really align with that point of view,” she said.

The conference concluded with a roundtable discussion with the program’s former directors and faculty that took stock of the 45-year legacy of Costume Studies at NYU. Participants included Jean Druesedow, Elizabeth Morano, Lourdes Font and Nancy Deihl. “The roundtable was informative, lively, and clearly appreciated by the audience,” said Deihl, Clinical Assistant Professor and Chair of the Art Department. “Several students shared that they felt more connected to the program after learning about its history.” 

Founded in 1979, NYU’s Costume Studies program was the first to educate specialists in this field. Today, it remains a leader, rooting the exploration of fashion and textiles within the intellectual and cultural hubs of NYU and New York City.

An audience of conference participants watches a roundtable discussion with former director's of NYU's costume studies program.

Image courtesy Ryan Lee

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Costume Studies

The MA in Costume Studies program focuses on fashion as an important cultural product in the context of material culture and the fine and decorative arts.

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