PBL and Fashion: DOs and DON’Ts

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In the Philadelphia OST network, it is not uncommon to see popular project topics, like health and nutrition, recycling and community mapping, appear at many different OST programs. One such theme is fashion, a topic that seems particularly popular with pre-teens girls.

A strong fashion-themed project can engage youth in meaningful discussions about media, self-esteem, creativity, culture, history, and economics.  It can teach youth valuable life skills such as budgeting and how to repurpose old items.  On the other hand, a poorly executed fashion project can reinforce stereotypes and put undo emphasis on media-promoted ideas about beauty.

If you are thinking about using Project-Based Learning to explore fashion and design, here are some DOs and DON’Ts to keep in mind: 

DO…incorporate math and/or literacy into each activity.  There are lots of ways to do this.   For math think about measuring, sizing, geometry, surveys, and graphs.  For literacy include blogging, journaling, and reading about fashion inspirations and icons.

DON’T…forget to make it age appropriate.  Elementary age youth may express interest in make-up or high heels, but use your best judgment about the appropriateness of these things for your youth.  It is okay to tell youth that some things just aren’t appropriate for their age, just like we limit the types of movies or video games we expose youth to.

DO…consider a career development angle.  Spend time learning about the different careers in fashion, from magazine editor to buyer, and the type of education required for these careers.  Explore different universities that specialize in fashion design or marketing such as the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York or the Savannah College of Art and Design.  Have youth explore the admissions requirements for these universities.

DO…explore the link between fashion and philanthropy.  Many fashion companies are making products to benefit a cause, for example Gap’s Project Red to support HIV/AIDS in Africa.  Encourage the youth to learn a little bit about this approach.   How to companies select their causes?  How much of the purchase price actually goes to the causes advertised?  What causes would the youth want to support with their fashion designs?

DON’T…limit your sources to fashion magazines.  Fashion magazines are easy to get, but most are intended for an adult audiences.  Use the internet to find fashion related articles and websites specifically created for youth.  If you do use fashion magazines, consider having a group discussion about the images they see (very thin models, expensive clothes, etc.), how lighting and retouching are used by the industry, and why magazines use those images.  Help your youth become thoughtful consumers of these types of images.  This is an excellent six minute TEDxTalk by a model here that can help get the discussion started.

DO…think about fashion and recycling.  Some designers try to reduce waste or reuse old materials in their designs.  Consider challenging the youth to re-create something out of old clothes or scraps of fabric.  Encourage the youth to learn a little bit about the fashion industry’s impact on the environment.

DO…reflect on the connection between clothes and culture.  Around the world, clothing is one of many ways people express their culture.  Consider exploring how people from around the world influence one another’s fashion.  When is it okay to wear fashions inspired by other cultural traditions?  When is it not?  This is a great way to incorporate geography, history, and cultural studies.

DON’T…have everyone create the same thing.  Youth are often focused on fitting in and looking like everyone else.  If you expect all youth to create the same style t-shirt you may be inadvertently promoting this mindset.  Instead, encourage youth to be creative and think outside the box.  If one person wants to design a t-shirt and another wants to design some funky shoelaces, nurture that.

DO…discuss the link between fashion, identity, and self-esteem.  Clothes can be a way for individuals to express themselves, but it isn’t the only way.  What a person does or says also speaks to their character and identity.  Challenge the youth to identify stereotypes from the real world.  Talk about bullying that happens because of a person’s clothes or appearance and help them to identify values that may not be reflected by a person’s appearance.

DON’T…limit yourself to a fashion show.  The obvious culminating product for a fashion PBL project is a fashion show.  However, some youth may not feel comfortable walking a runway or putting themselves on display in front of a large group of people.  Consider other ways youth can feature a product they have designed.  They can create advertisements, photo editorials, sketch books, or a website to showcase their designs.

DO…include variety in your PBL projects.  If you do a PBL project on fashion one time, be sure to use the next PBL project as an opportunity to introduce the youth to something completely different.  It is important that youth hear the message that all areas (fashion, science, literacy, sports, technology, etc.) are important and interesting.

We have posted an example of a rigorous fashion PBL project to get the ball rolling, but don’t feel limited by this sample project. With PBL and fashion, the possibilities are limitless.

by: Kristen Coe

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