Criticizing Visual Culture through Fashion Design and Role-Playing

By Etherington, Matthew | Art Education, November 2018 | Go to article overview

Criticizing Visual Culture through Fashion Design and Role-Playing


Etherington, Matthew, Art Education


It has always been a professional goal of mine to design lessons that provide meaningful opportunities for students to explore deeper connections with art in their daily lives. As a junior high art teacher, I am further compelled to reach this goal for I know not all of my students will pursue an art education when matriculating into high school. This "end-of-the-line" realization motivates me to design lessons that strive for relevance beyond surface-level mark making so that when students and I have completed our time together, the process of viewing and making art has become more than a trivial endeavor. I envision art education as a means to provide critical life skills that empower students to create, question, and think beyond the face value of visual content.

While I understand that my curricular expectations may reflect an idealized scenario of best practice I do not believe that I alone hold these goals. This article shares my experiences, successes, and challenges in implementing a 7th-grade fashion design unit in which I attempt to realize my curricular vision through critical visual culture pedagogy and role-playing.

Critical Visual Culture Pedagogy

A visual culture approach to art education is a postmodernist viewpoint where previously held elitist notions of quality are challenged (Freedman, 2003) and includes not only the study of fine art but also images from everyday life such as advertising, fashion, folk art, and popular culture (Freedman, 2003; Freedman & Stuhr, 2004; Powell & Serriere, 2013). However, a visual culture education is more than expanding artistic sources; it also promotes the critical analyses of images (Duncum, 2010) and has become a useful educational strategy in preservice teacher programs when critically analyzing contemporary culture (Mamur, 2012). This component of criticality is essential since images are embedded in ideology and may represent hegemonic practices of communication (Powell & Serriere, 2013). As such, it becomes necessary to educate students how to be more than a passive consumer of visual content and an active agent in the making and understanding of art (Freedman, 2003; Freedman & Stuhr, 2004; Garoian & Gaudelius, 2008). In so doing, enacting a critical visual culture curriculum provides an opportunity for students to learn how to connect with and participate in democratic society beyond the walls of school (Freedman, 2003).

Art education scholars Christine Ballengee-Morris and Patricia Stuhr (2001) stated, "A study of visual culture provides a dynamic blueprint for understanding how we live our lives and increases empathy for understanding the lives and cultural contexts of others" (p. 7). In this perspective, the study of images and art artifacts themselves reflect only one aspect of the learning process; the contexts of where, why, and by whom they were produced are equally important and provide insights as to how art connects with broader society (Powell & Serriere, 2013).

I wanted to create a lesson utilizing Ballengee-Morris and Stuhr's notion of a dynamic blueprint, with the hopes that as students analyze and derive meanings behind everyday images they would also learn that the differences and perspectives of others enrich our world. To assist with this goal, I created a 4-week unit that critically analyzed aspects of fashion. I wanted to see student perspectives regarding how fashion relates to personal identity, as well as create classroom opportunities to critically explore ethical issues associated with fashion, such as body image manipulation through digital means, exploitive practices, and power dynamics related to the social capital of fashion.

Why Fashion Design With Adolescent Students?

I have noticed that many students are preoccupied with personal appearance and establishing/experimenting with their social identity through clothing. For example, I have observed students embrace fashion trends as dictated by peer social cues and I have witnessed the bullying of others who did not. …

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