Using the Present to Illuminate the Past: Popular Culture’s Self-Referentiality as a Tool for Reexamining Fashion History

Friday, January 6, 2017: 11:10 AM
Room 401 (Colorado Convention Center)
Anya Kurennaya, Parsons School of Design, The New School
When Beyonce took the stage or, rather, the football field, at the 2016 Super Bowl Halftime Show, she employed potent stylistic references along with music and dance to present a narrative laden with alternate meaning and political subtext. Her bandolier jacket referenced a similar jacket worn by Michael Jackson during his 1993 Super Bowl performance, while her dancers were styled in costumes visually reminiscent of 1960s Black Panther dress. Beyonce’s performance employs historical images to speak to present concerns while simultaneously highlighting and visually recontexualizing historical milestones, creating a historical trajectory which connects the past and present to speak to future possibilities for addressing race in America. This paper explores occurrences such as these as an effective tool for examining and re-examining fashion history with students, arguing that popular culture plays an important role in presenting and representing historical images. Furthermore, such referential occurrences create historical links that can, oftentimes, reinterpret the past in a way that archival images and documents alone cannot. The visual and symbolic links created between the past and the present are useful tools for students examining fashion history since they speak to multiple time periods at once, challenge canonical representations of history, and offer multiple interpretations. Focusing on case studies which present an alternate reading of history or unearth typically forgotten images and references, this paper presents the contemporary self-referential popular culture image as a beneficial tool that can be used to highlight the subversive and political potential of dress history.