Apocalypse Wow: Course projects lesson of past onto bleak future

Bridget Elliott loves making history come alive for her students. But using the undead to accomplish this task is, admittedly, an unusual route to making the subject palpable.

As part of a final project for undergraduate class What (Not) to Wear: Fashion Textiles and Art II, the Visual Arts professor had her students imagine a zombie apocalypse in which they had to make garments and be resourceful, creative, yet fashionable at the same time.

The final product is an online exhibition, What to Wear in a Zombie Apocalypse, showcasing repurposed, practical and stylish clothing made by the students.

In the end, the project served a number of purposes, Elliott noted.

“The students researched other times of shortage – World War II, the Great Depression – in order to envision future shortages, and what they could come from. We wanted to bring in ideas of sustainability,” she said.

“And a lot of students feel history is irrelevant and that it doesn’t speak to present experience. What we wanted to do was make connections; we wanted to show how drawing from history could work in the present. The zombie presented a new scenario of disaster and scarcity.”

Julia Krueger, a PhD student in Visual Arts and teaching assistant for the course, agrees.

“This was pedagogical exercise. It was a way for students to get excited about history and make history their own. We thought, ‘How can we make these instances in history really cool? We could ask students to read essays, but if you can’t make a personal connection to it, you won’t get excited about it and you won’t remember it,” she said.

“Having them think about reusing clothing and a sustainable frame of mind- having them think about this (in terms of a zombie apocalypse) might seem crazy but some of this stuff has already happened, and people have had to deal with it.”

Part of the assignment was getting students to be inventive and think of the garment they had to make creatively and plausibly, Elliott continued. In an accompanying essay, students justified the garment through a well-researched backstory for the item – why they used the materials they used, how the garment itself would be useful.

The students came from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds, Elliott said, so the garments and their backstories were diverse and creative. Students imagined zombies as part of an invasion from outer space, a climate disaster or economic crisis.

One student imagined the zombie apocalypse had destroyed everything, including her wedding dress and all traditional dressmaking materials. She made a new one out of coffee filters, tissue paper and cupcake liners. Another student created a camo-chic shawl out of found and collected materials, allowing the wearer to hide from zombies on the hunt for human flesh while being trendy.

“The students had to think through their ideas, a number of different media, to reflect their ideas – how to photograph it, how to stage it, how to write about it,” Elliott said. “They are participants in fashion culture and were actually proactive (in class), talking about sustainability, fashion swaps, repurposing, remaking. They were a surprisingly critical and engaged group, which was very rewarding.”

And a zombie apocalypse proved the perfect opportunity for a number of lessons.

“A zombie apocalypse is absolutely not fashionable. We wanted something that pushed students over the edge, so they didn’t think about fashion in terms of sex appeal and Versace. Moving people beyond something they’re expecting forces them to draw on a number of different skillsets,” she explained.

But at the end of the day, in the event of a zombie apocalypse, fashion would be the last thing on one’s mind, right? Not necessarily, Elliott noted.

“You would think fashion is frivolous. But when life is bad, looking at World War II, looking nice helped people. It gave them purpose, cheered them up and played a fundamental role in surviving war and recovery. Having a nice dress, even one made from a feed sack, made life more bearable,” she said.

“Fashion isn’t lightweight – enormous waste is produced. There are hugely serious issues around this. To think about the serious implications of fashion, thinking about it matters. Your choices about it matter. That was the key theme in the course – the students getting over their perceptions, and that’s one of the best parts of teaching the courses.”