Mentioning the ‘Unmentionable’
Underwear, economy, loving liberal arts, and why women shave their legs with Fashion Professor Sarah Collins
By Matt Braddick
Taking my seat across from fashion professor Sarah Collins on a recent Wednesday afternoon, I couldn’t help noticing the stacks of history books on her desk and shelves. The titles give only hints about a multitude of topics, and several of them appear to be textbooks. A lone painting of a multicolored suburban landscape grips the wall proudly, looking down on all the texts and papers of the office.
I had come to discuss her lecture, “Unmentionables Mentioned: The History of Underwear,” set for Feb. 1 at the newly opened Ivy Hall.
“Well, originally, the topic was about looking at the role of fashion in literature,” she said. “I did the research, but it was just very academic and boring.”
She said she changed her mind after seeing another professor give a very entertaining lecture, and she worried about hers being far too serious. She decided, though, that this history of undergarments would be much more intriguing to people.
“Everybody has a fascination with underwear, it seems, because there’s something taboo about it, at least in most places in American society. It’s not as polite to talk about it.”
“Did you have difficulty when you were putting this together, worrying about if anyone would be offended?” I asked.
“No, actually. What’s funny is I first gave this lecture to a group of senior citizens. I was a little bit worried, because I thought if anybody would be offended, it’d definitely be a group like this. But they loved it!” she explained.
I tried to picture a retirement home full of elderly couples enraptured by Collins’ lecture, and found the image quite humorous.
“It was really interesting because they gave me so much first-hand knowledge about seeing those changes,” she said of her first audience. “During World War II, for example, nylon material was used to make parachutes, so they stopped making hose for women. That’s when women started shaving their legs. So I kind of curse them because now I have to shave my legs as a consequence,” she said, half-jokingly shaking her fist in frustration.
I pointed out how that story related directly to the current economic decline in America, so I asked her how the fashion industry is dealing with an environment where people were having trouble buying food and gas.
“That’s something several publications are addressing right now,” Collins said. “That’s the debate going on right now: How is fashion going to survive? Basically, we’re in the business of selling things people don’t need. Everybody wears clothing, but our job is to make you think you need something new every season. The debate starts with, do people want to spend more money on a garment that is just a basic color, good quality that they can wear for longer periods of time or is it like the movies? Do people want to escape? Are we going to see more color and fabric and fun? So perhaps then they want something trendier and a little bit more disposable and therefore, possibly cheaper.”
Collins said this quarter started off well for her. Mostly, she’s been working with fashion graduate students, but says she still teaches a computer-aided design class for some of the new undergrads. Some of the students, especially those who come from semester-oriented schools, end up getting a real eye-opening experience.
“My school was like that,” Collins said of Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, where she earned her undergraduate degree. “You get a soft opening; you don’t really start to get going until later in the semester. But here, you really hit the ground running. No warm-up period.”
“I was an American Studies major,” she continued, “a kind of interdisciplinary degree. I took classes in education, psychology, economics, sociology, literature, politics. At the time, I was doing art and theater minors. And at the end of my junior year, I had a breakthrough in art, so I switched majors; minors in English, American Studies and theater.” Collins said that background made her really appreciate the value of liberal arts.
“It gives you a set of tools, so that if I come upon a problem I maybe haven’t seen before, it’s a skill you can fall back on,” she said.
Collins offered some advice for students: “I’m not the best writer in the world, but I can write. I can put together papers, artists’ statements, that sort of thing. I think many art students have a tendency to say ‘I don’t need to write, I’m a visual artist,’ which is terribly wrong of them.
“Everyone has to communicate,” she chuckled.
She said that’s especially true in fashion.
“They have to be able to speak intelligently about their work,” Collins said. “You have to be able to do a little of your own public relations work in fashion. You have to be able to sell your own line.”
Collins said her liberal arts background and her passion for the subject with drove her to research for the underwear lecture.
“Something I discovered about myself and why I love so many different disciplines is I like storytelling, and I think fashion can tell a story,” she said. The history of fashion really fascinates me because it tells what everyone’s story is, the human story. It’s one of our basic needs. Even aboriginal people or nudists still decorate themselves in a basic way. There’s something about that, something about the human condition, to decorate ones self.”
“Does that stem from a need to distinguish one’s self as an individual?” I asked.
“Yes, very much so,” Collins said. “That’s something we’re talking about in modern times: the idea of mass customization, that people want to be individual,” she said. “But how do you sell that in a mass quantity? How do you sell individuality?”
Whatever the answer to that question, it seems fashion has a bright future, as long as teachers like Collins continue to bring their own experience and knowledge of the field to students.
Collins’ lecture, “Unmentionables Mentioned: The History of Underwear,” will be Feb. 1 at 3 p.m. at Ivy Hall on Ponce De Leon Blvd. It is free and open to the public.