From the confines of a small Washington, D.C., office, Chloe Chapin, a graduate student at Harvard University and a renowned costume designer, painter and teacher, delivered a guest lecture in Visiting Associate Professor of Theatre and Costume Director Annaliese Baker’s “Decoding the Dress” class on Tuesday, March 2.
The lecture was titled “Men in Movies: Masculinity & Material Culture,” and served both as a lecture on the history of men’s formalwear and a space for the Whitman community to engage with the scholarly side of costume design.
While the lecture was held as a supplement to the class’s discussion on the 1992 film “Reservoir Dogs,” attendance was also open to the rest of the Whitman community.
The event began with a brief history of suits. Chapin guided attendees through a series of detailed collages depicting the formal suit in various stages of evolution. She played clips from old Fred Astaire films, cited the influence of German literature and eventually posed a foundational question to her attendees: “Why does conformity play such a prominent role in men’s formalwear, especially in contrast to the individuality and difference centered in women’s fashion?”
“There’s something really core to our conception of self that goes along with gender,” she said. “And ‘dress’ is, like, one of the first things that expresses or defines or advertises or communicates gender. So, you can use ideas of gender to look at clothing, or you can use clothing to look at gender.”
For the second half of her talk, Chapin opted to forgo the traditional lecturer/audience format, and instead encouraged attendees to come up with their own examples of masculinity represented in pop culture. In breakout rooms, attendees compiled pictures of everyone from the Joker to Billy Porter to TikTok’s Sway Boys.
According to Chapin, hands-on analysis like this is an important part of her work. She wants students to walk away with new ways of approaching familiar subjects, not necessarily facts they can rattle off in casual conversation.
“[I hope that] I offered new ways of knowing. Like, not things to know, but ways to know, and new avenues to look into. Like, I didn’t talk about TikTok in my presentation, or Billy Porter or traditional dress, but students brought that up. So, to me, the opportunity for students to have ownership over the question is really valuable.”
For Chapin, this type of research is not so much about answering the question, but about finding better questions to ask.
“That was one thing that I sort of realized as a painter,” Chapin said. “Because a lot of people, I think, feel like school or work is sort of the math model, of like: ‘Here’s the problem, and here’s the solution to the problem. I’ve done it! I’ve learned it!’ Whereas for me, painting was never really about answering a question. It was sort of like, I would do a bunch of paintings in order to figure out what this weird intangible feeling was… And then once I found out what the question was, it was like I had moved onto another way of thinking.”
Professor Baker, who is part of a national working group with Chapin that seeks to decolonize and “redress the narrative” of fashion history, hopes the lecture opened the door for students to really engage with fashion and costume design as a scholarly discipline.
“I think a lot of people don’t pay attention to the clothing in a movie unless it’s a grand historical drama,” Baker said. “And there’s a lot of work and a lot of theory that’s borrowed from every discipline: psychology, feminist theory — just everywhere.”
While Professor Baker hopes to engage students in fashion scholarship, they also hope their students are still able to distance themselves from the topic when watching movies on their own.
“I’m hoping that at the end, I can teach them maybe how to turn it off or turn it down really low so they can still enjoy films, and it doesn’t ruin the plot, but, you know, really kind of critically think about [it].”
One of the students in attendance was first-year Banyan Moss who saw the lecture advertised on the student listserv.
“I was, like, ‘Oh, I don’t have anything to do that day, and men’s fashion sounds reasonably interesting, so I’ll check it out’,” Moss said.
Moss enjoyed the initial lecture portion of the talk and found the various visual evolutions of formalwear interesting. However, one of her biggest takeaways was its simplification over the years.
“Things used to be so colorful, and now they’re just not,” Moss said.
Ultimately, though, Chapin’s lecture was very well-received. Professor Baker is eager to continue the conversation in class on Thursday.