Studying fashion before and after Web 2.0

I first graduated in July 1997, having spent the previous three years studying textile design in Manchester. When I graduated from my MA at London College of Fashion in July 2015, it was the end of a very different journey. There were plenty of reasons why: I was studying part time, at Master’s level and it was my first academic essay-based qualification since I finished GCSE English. However, it was studying fashion post-internet – more specifically, with broadband, wifi and a smart phone – that resulted in the most dramatic changes to my student experience.

During my first degree, information had to be hunted down. To keep myself abreast of industry news, I subscribed to trade journal Draper’s Record and would buy newspapers during fashion week to get the best coverage of the catwalk shows. I was addicted to glossy magazines and would buy Vogue, Elle and Marie Claire on a regular basis for their glamorous editorial shoots and for the latest news from the fashion world I was so obsessed with. This was in addition to visits to the university library and, as my halls of residence were close to the city centre, a spot of window shopping each week to keep up with trends and fondle all the interesting fabrics.

UMIST main building, by Pete BirkinshawMy halls were the most modern on offer from the University of Manchester and each room had an Ethernet connection. I didn’t really know what that was at the time and the only people I knew who paid for this optional extra were those who were studying computer science. In fact, I didn’t even buy my own computer until my final year and it was only used for typing up my final major project report, plus doing the layout for our hall’s Residents’ Association newsletter, of which I was the editor.

At this time, the World Wide Web was not of much use to a fashion student. A friend and I went to an internet cafe during our final project to do some additional research, but the retailer websites that we visited had very little information on them and hardly any images, because pictures took ages to download when you were on a dial up connection. You know how frustrating it is when you’re travelling and trying to catch up with social media whilst going through areas of weak and patchy data signal? That’s what it was like accessing the internet via a dial-up connection.

If I wanted to know what a technical term meant, I had to find a dictionary. If I wanted an explanation of a technique or concept I’d not heard of before, I’d ask a lecturer or a technician. If these questions raised their heads in an evening when I was sat working in my room, I had to wait until the next morning for answers. Consuming fashion was something you only did via high street shops or images in magazines. My mum used mail order catalogues, but that seemed so unnecessary to me now that I was living in a city, with access to more fashion retailers than ever. Designer brands still seemed like a distant world though, and my only access to catwalk shows was via the annual Clothes Show Live event in Birmingham.

London College of Fashion, by morebylessWhen I started my MA, studying fashion was more different than I could possibly have imagined. Students can now research their subject 24/7 with access to encyclopaedic fashion websites like Vogue.com, SHOWstudio and Business of Fashion offering more content than you could ever hope to plough through. Blogging and social media platforms have made fashion more democratic, with everyone now having the potential to be a fashion stylist, photographer or journalist and build a following for their work. Fashion trends are no longer dictated solely by journalists at glossy magazines who have to bend to please their advertisers, as now bloggers and vloggers across the world have front row access to fashion week shows, sharing what they’re seeing instantly on Instagram.

These days, if I want to find out more about a designer, I just need to do a Google search and I have the information I require in seconds. When I needed to know how to format an academic essay, there were hundreds of sites offering help and advice. I followed fashion brands, models, bloggers, archives and museums on Instagram, and could easily subscribe to mailing lists and events websites to find out about talks and exhibitions that may be relevant to my studies. I could sit at home on my laptop and access books and journal articles online via the UAL library website. I shared my journey as a mature student with my followers on Twitter, posted articles about my research on my blog, and recruited proof readers for my dissertation from my friends on Facebook.

One of the many things I discovered during my time as a student at LCF was that the academic field of fashion studies reached an important turning point just as I was finishing my Batchelor’s degree, and in the same city too. In July 1997, the conference ‘Dress in History: Studies and Approaches’ took place at The Gallery of Costume in Manchester, marking a new era of communication between academics and curators.

It took another 15 years before I realised that was the path for me, and I often marvel at how the internet has helped the past come alive for me in recent years. When I was reading books on eighteenth century menswear as part of my design research in the 90s I could never have imagined that one day I’d be able to watch short videos of similar garments, from a computer that fits in the palm of my hand, shared by LCF alumnus and Curator at the Museum of London, Timothy Long. The internet has brought us many things, but these tiny shared moments of fashion joy are among my favourites.

Featured image by lipsticklori. Other images via Pete Birkinshaw and morebyless‘ Flickr photostreams.

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