Black Voices in the Fashion Museum: Curating a Community-Participatory Research Project about Black Women’s Fashion and Style on a Predominantly White College Campus

The Iowa State University Textiles and Clothing Museum (TCM) provides ample opportunities for student involvement in collaborative research projects with faculty on campus. These research projects range from material culture analyses of single or multiple objects to learn about an object’s story and relationship to people and culture (Geismar, 2011) to curating an exhibition through an in-depth research and curation process.  As one of the current Agatha Huepenbecker Burnet Endowed Graduate Research Assistants for the TCM and second year MS student in Apparel, Merchandising, and Design, I, Dyese Matthews, am conducting research related to dress and appearance practices of Black women college students that are currently attending predominately white institutions in Iowa. My research will culminate in a fashion history exhibition in Spring 2020 in the Mary Alice Gallery that runs from February 3 to April 17. The research for the exhibition is also a part of my thesis; therefore, my thesis will have a component that is central to the land grant mission of educating the public, a core value that I also hold as a scholar, student, and future educator.

The purpose of my thesis and exhibition research is to analyze the role that fashion, style, and dress play in Black women’s lives at predominately white institutions and its relationship to their experiences with empowerment. I gained interest in this topic after learning more about the relationships between dress and identity after reading works by pioneering scholars such as Dr. Susan Kaiser in her book Fashion and Cultural Studies. I learned how people use dress to communicate their various identities as they move into different spaces (Goffman, 1965). After learning about the intersection of fashion and identity, I began to wonder about Black women’s experiences fashioning their styles at predominately white institutions, which led me to ask a research question about Black women’s use of dress as an expression of Black identity, activism, or empowerment. Working with Dr. Kelly Reddy-Best, Assistant Professor in Apparel, Merchandising, and Design, I developed a research question and am building my master’s thesis and corresponding exhibition in the TCM around this topic.

Because the museum lacked documented examples of Black women’s garments that express their Black identity, activism, and/or empowerment, I developed a research project where I am interviewing Black women across Iowa. I am collecting in-person interviews (Maxwell, 2013; Willig, 2013) where the conversations focus on specific garments and accessories that the Black women provide that they feel express their Black or activist identity. Doing interviews in this way to collect research is called a “wardrobe interview” (Woodward, 2007). The Black women who I interview then have the option to lend their clothing and accessories for the exhibition. This type of exhibition and history-making is one way to add Black voices into history and the institutions that, for so long have left them out of the picture.


My curated exhibition is titled Collegiate Fashion & Activism: Black Women’s Styles on the College Campus and will run from February 3 to April 17, 2020. The opening talk for the exhibition is scheduled for February 10, 2020 where I will discuss how Black women college students in the 21st century living in the Midwest in predominantly white spaces negotiate their Black identity, activism, and experiences of empowerment through their fashion, style, and dress. I will highlight my use of counter storytelling, a central tenet of Critical Race Theory, (Delgado & Stefanic, 2017; Goffman, 1965) to give Black women college students a voice in how they present their authentic selves on an everyday basis while fashioning their bodies. I hope to create a space for critical dialogue about race, fashion, and the college campus where for too long Black women have experience marginalization. I hope to empower Black women by writing them into history and giving them a space to see a reflection of themselves in a central and important space on campus: a history museum.


Figure 4. Official flyer for the museum exhibition titled Collegiate Fashion and Activism: Black Women’s Styles on the College Campus, curated by Dyese Matthews, Agatha Huepenbecker Burnet Endowed Graduate Research Assistant and Dr. Kelly Reddy-Best, Assistant Professor in Apparel, Merchandising and Design


Delgado, R., & Stefancic, J. (2017).  Critical race theory: An introduction (3rd ed.). New York, NY: New York University Press.

Geismar, H. (2011). “Material culture studies” and other ways to theorize objects: A primer to a regional debate. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 53(1), 210-218.

Goffman, I. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. New York, NY: Anchor Books.

Kaiser, S. B. (2012). Fashion and cultural studies. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic.

Maxwell, J. A. (2013). Qualitative research design: An interactive approach (3rd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications.

Willig, C. (2013). Introducing qualitative research in psychology. (3rd ed.). Maidenhead: Open University Press

Woodward, S. (2007). Why women wear what they wear. Oxford: Berg Publishers.

The Groovy 1960s: What a Time!

Here at the Iowa State University Textiles and Clothing Museum we are huge fans of the 1960s for a number of reasons, but primarily for the fashion trends. During this decade, the successes of the fashion industry had huge increases. Farrell-Beck and Parsons stated, “The period 1959-1968 was largely prosperous, with a generally rising stock market, gradually declining unemployment, and fairly quiescent inflation…[t]he United States boasted a $15 billion apparel industry in 1966” (Farrell-Beck and Parsons, 2007, p. 163). Our students at Iowa State University also have a great interest in this decade as it represents a time of pushing boundaries with bright colors and geometric shapes, as well as social movements such as the Civil Rights movement and the Gay rights movement (Mendes & Haye, 1999).

We have a number of objects within our collection the reflect the trends, statements, and fads of the 1960s; here are some of our favorites!

Photographed here is a woman’s A-line, sleeveless dress made of linen (circa 1967). This dress has a white bodice with a round neckline, finished with wide orange bias binding and an orange skirt. The front and back bodice have vertical seams from waistline to armscye. The bodice of this dress is fully lined with rayon, and the orange skirt also has a rayon lining.  With a somewhat modest appearance, this dress represents the transitional phase of the 1960s. Farrell-Beck and Parsons state, “Despite the period’s reputation for wild, kicky dressing, it began in a fairly sedate way, with most skirts skimming the knees and most waistlines firmly defined…” (Farrell-Beck and Parsons, 2007, p. 173). 




Photographed here are a pair of woman’s slacks made with a bold print, linen-like, woven fabric (circa 1965).  The print is bright, with a black and white alternating background, and large paisley and flower shapes in deep pink, orange and yellow. These pants are slim fitting  with no waistband. These types of bright colors and prints were extremely popular during the 1960s, “Colors ran riot, singly, paired, and in psychedelic prints that mixed several high-intensity hues. Favorites included shocking pink, orange, lime green, purple, and canary yellow” (Farrell-Beck and Parsons, 2007, p. 173).




A huge fad from the 1960s was the paper dress, and we are excited to share that we have multiple paper dresses in the Textiles and Clothing Museum collection. Farrell-Beck and Parsons state, “Any account of this decade must include the paper dress that became a fad in 1966. These sold for as little as $1.25 or as much as $1,000, depending on the complexity and who designed them” (Farrell-Beck and Parsons, 2007, p. 173).





Finally, one of our most prized possessions within our collection from the 1960s is this blouse made by famous designer Emilio Pucci (circa 1960s). This is a woman’s geometric print shirt with yellow, orange, pink and tan geometric shapes.   Fabric is very thin, almost sheer, which was ideal for traveling (Farrell-Beck and Parsons, 2007). This blouse was made in Italy and is 100% pure cotton. Farrell-Beck and Parsons state, “Notable Italian names [of this decade] included Emilio Pucci, famed for bold prints on silk knits, perfect for travel. Although he had been designing them in the 1950s, Pucci’s silk prints in bright swirling colors struck a chord in the psychedelic 1060s” (Farrell-Beck and Parsons, 2007, p. 171).  



We are excited to share some of our favorite objects from the 1960s, and we hope that you enjoy them as much as we do! What is your favorite decade from the 1900s? Tell us in the comment section or on our new Instagram page @tcmuseum_isu.


Farrell-Beck, J., Parsons, J. (2006). Twentieth century dress in the United States. New York: Fairchild.

Mendes, V., & De La Haye, A. (1999). 20th century fashion. London: Thames & Hudson.

By: Dyese Matthews, Agatha Huepenbecker Burnet Endowed Graduate Assistant