Fashion and social justice book suggestions

Story by Katie Knowles

Fashion is not known for its inclusivity. In fact, quite the opposite. But fashion scholars have been studying and publishing great work that takes a critical examination of fashion as a cultural phenomenon and an industry. Here are three recent books to get you started in learning about the history of fashion from the lens of social justice.

Dressed in Dreams: A Black Girl’s Love Letter to the Power of Fashion by Tanisha C. Ford

Dressed in dreams book cover art by Tanisha C. FordThis memoir style book by historian Tanisha C. Ford, currently a professor at CUNY Graduate Center, is indeed a love letter written to fashion’s power to make us feel seen, sometimes in ways we never intended. The chapters are organized by different fashion items, from dashikis and bamboo earrings to the Jheri curl and the hoodie. Ford traces the histories of these styles in American history, telling the story from her own personal experiences as an African American woman who deeply appreciates fashion, yet often finds her choices in self-presentation misinterpreted or appropriated. Her writing style is engaging and full of emotion; you’ll find yourself laughing just as frequently as you shake your head at the inequity within American culture when it comes to recognizing the influences of Black style.

Wearing the Cheongsam: Dress and Culture in a Chinese Diaspora by Cheryl Sim

Wearing the Cheongsam cover art by Cheryl Sim

Author Cheryl Sim, managing director and curator at the Phi Foundation for Contemporary Art, Montreal, Canada, combines interviews she conducted with women of Chinese descent with her own personal reflections as a member of this same group. The book dives into the complexities of the cheongsam garment (sometimes called a qipao) for women in the Chinese diaspora, primarily focusing on Sim’s own home country of Canada. It is deeply grounded in discussions of what it means, and what it feels like, to wear the cheongsam. Sim highlights the multiplicity of views and experiences of immigrant communities and how they engage with so-called ethnic clothing. The cheongsam has a long history of fetishization and exotification, particularly in Hollywood films, while also being a garment associated with pride in Chinese heritage.

Fashionopolis: Why What We Wear Matters by Dana ThomasFashionopolis cover art by Dana Thomas

The role of fast fashion in the destruction of the planet is becoming more widely known, and it’s a serious problem we have to confront on a global scale. In this book, Dana Thomas makes it apparent that fixing fast fashion is intrinsically tied to social justice. The industry exploits our planet, and it exploits the people whose extremely cheap labor it depends upon, who are in turn the people who most frequently see their homelands and environments destroyed or poisoned by waste and pollution. Thomas’s book provides a window into the industry that is ultimately hopeful as she highlights many of the people who are working to create real, meaningful change.

Ready for more reading?! Check out the Fashion and Race Database, a web resource founded and run by Kimberly M. Jenkins, assistant professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. It includes original content as well as compilations of books, films, articles, exhibitions, and lectures.

The Department of Design and Merchandising is part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.