Fashion design major Haley Pote built her class schedule around one course she wanted to take this semester — a course being offered for the first time at Central Michigan University.
She's one of about 45 students who signed up for the inaugural semester of Queer Fashion, created and taught by fashion merchandising and design faculty member Michael Mamp.
The undergraduate course examines LGBTQ experience through the lens of fashion and dress.
"It's so much more than just queer fashion," said Pote, a junior from Clarkston, Michigan. "It encompasses everything that has ever been involved with the LGBTQ community."
A day in class
A recent class period starts with a question: What is avant garde fashion? Students zero in on its experimental nature.
"These are not items that you're going to put on and go to the store," Mamp agrees, showing slides of far-out, impractical clothing designs. "I mean, I guess you could, but then it would be a performance art piece."
"It's definitely challenging typical societal ideals that aren't typically talked about." — CMU senior Angelia Bennett
Mamp walks the rows among his students while lecturing, showing slides and talking comfortably about topics and terms that in other times or places might have been unexpected or even scandalous.
"It's definitely challenging typical societal ideals that aren't typically talked about," said senior Angelia Bennett, a fashion design major from Grand Rapids, Michigan, who appreciates that students can speak freely. "You can challenge each other's ideas."
When discussion turns to the late performance artist Leigh Bowery and whether femininity is an artificial construct, a student questions whether that implies masculinity is authentic.
As the lesson unfolds, class members raise hands and offer input.
"I haven't taught a class in a while where people responded the way they do in this class," Mamp said. "It is by far the most participatory group of students I've had in years."
About that word
Titling the course Queer Fashion fits with today's LGBTQ culture embracing a word that once was a smear.
"The community is taking back a term that has had negative associations and reclaiming it," he said. "It turns the word into a powerful representation of who you are."
Queer, he explained, has become an umbrella term for people of various sexual and gender identities.
An unexpected result
About one-third of Mamp's Queer Fashion students are African-American or black. It's the most racially diverse classroom he's ever taught at CMU — something he did not anticipate but thinks he may understand.
"It wasn't about the norm," he said of the course's appeal. "The students want to hear about something other than the majority."
He said people's interest in the class transcends interest in fashion; it's about gaining insight into diverse subcultures.
Bennett said as a black woman she relates to the LGBTQ community's challenges she's learning about in class.
Past to present
The course grew out of Mamp's research as a fashion historian. "It just became evident to me that most of our history is told from a heterosexual, Caucasian, privileged perspective," he said.
The fashion industry is a diverse place, and Mamp recognized the need to have a diverse course.
He spent nearly two years prepping Queer Fashion for launch. Any doubt about whether it met a need dissipated when he walked into class.
"People were sitting there reading the book!" he said of the assigned text, "A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk."
Students can take the course through either fashion merchandising and design or women and gender studies, and it's among the courses students can choose from to meet their University Program general education requirements.
Apart from a Queer Fashion, Styles and Bodies course at Iowa State University, Mamp said he knows of no similar university courses anywhere.
"This is an emerging field of study," Mamp said. "This really puts CMU at the forefront."
Into the future
Mamp's ideas for the course keep evolving as he looks forward to teaching it next year and in the summer of 2019.
"I'm already thinking about what I can do differently next time," he said. That includes more opportunities for students to team up on projects in class.
He hopes for 60-65 students in the fall.
"I'm happy to be breaking new ground," he said. "I hope this opens the door to us being able to continue to develop courses like this one."