Reviewed October 2020
Molly McGuire, Digital Strategies Librarian
The Fashion and Race Database is a platform that aims to “decentralize the study of fashion,” filling an important void in fashion scholarship. Founded in 2017 and relaunched in July of this year, the database is a response to a Euro-centric framework of fashion history and theory, with goals of amplifying BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) perspectives and broadening the traditional narrative. Kimberly Jenkins, assistant professor at Ryerson University’s School of Fashion in Toronto, began the project after struggling with the lack of pedagogical resources that acknowledge the complex cultural and historical contexts that impact fashion studies. As she gathered sources for her own courses related to race, power, representation and marginalization, she found herself building a collection that informed the creation of the platform as it exists today.
That collection formed the basis of “The Library,” the largest and most used section of the Fashion and Race Database. The Library is a continually expanding repository that encompasses books, films, lectures, exhibitions, podcasts, and scholarly and popular articles. Users are given the option to browse only open-access content, as some sites may have a paywall. The design separates content by medium and displays a curated selection of content in carousels. An additional access point is the “search by keyword” section, where users are presented with a list of example terms such as “Costume” and “Media representation.” This phrasing is slightly misleading as users cannot currently use their own keywords to search, but must browse using these preselected tags. A search box appears at the top of page, but it searches the entire website. As the collection grows, it would be beneficial to provide an Advanced Search feature. Nevertheless, the suggested keywords offer an excellent opportunity to encourage exploration throughout the repository, and a “My List” feature allows users to create their own personal list of resources. Educators, students and researchers will be well-served by this growing collection of content. However, an accessibility checker revealed numerous issues that need addressing to better accommodate users with disabilities. The database’s inclusive mission would be better served with more emphasis on accessibility in the design of the page, so that all users can easily interact with these carefully curated resources.
With the recent relaunch, Jenkins has brought together a small team and is actively seeking new content from contributors to highlight voices and stories that have been traditionally under-examined. The “Objects that Matter” section features objects from different cultures, such as burkinis and moccasins, and recontextualizes the histories of these objects. A different item is featured every week. The pages share a visually appealing and consistent design, with authors using the same sections to form a complete profile of the life of the object. At the time of review, there are nine objects; as the collection grows, it may be useful to introduce some controlled vocabulary so that researchers can easily view connections between different objects. Each page begins with examples of the object in art, photography, or museum collections. The “Appropriation and Influence” section of the page catalogs examples of how the object has been appropriated in modern fashion, entertainment, or consumer culture. Seeing these examples grouped together reveals how objects have been divorced from their cultural contexts to be sold as commodities. Users will find it inspiring to see how the database resituates these objects, illuminating their historical significance.
Though some sections are little sparse, the team is rapidly adding new content. Users are invited to subscribe to a newsletter to learn about the newest additions to the database, and the website keeps track of inspirational projects in “The Directory” and relevant events in the “The Calendar.” Still to come is a “Profiles” section that highlights the contributions of BIPOC figures who have been overlooked in the academic canon or erased from historical narratives. While the “Essays & Opinions” section currently has only one article, this promises to change soon due to the project’s emphasis on providing publishing opportunities to BIPOC writers and allies. The Fashion and Race Database is a vitally important and ambitious endeavor, one that promises to benefit educators, students, and anyone seeking to learn about how fashion and race intersect. It will be exciting to keep an eye on this space as the Database grows to encompass more content and diverse voices, build additional functionality, and develop into an invaluable authority on underrepresented histories and stories.