I was teaching a unit on medieval Japan and we were exploring the lives of Japanese uji, or noble families. I wanted students to have a deeper understanding of the use of fashion to separate social levels. We looked at the crazy lengths Japanese nobles went to communicate their wealth and status – blackening their teeth, wearing multiple layers of expensive clothes, etc. To really bring this concept to heart, I came up with an activity whereby students had to redesign our school uniform. The uniform had to communicate, to peers and to students at other private schools, that our school had the most elite of students. And, to add an extra degree of engagement, I encouraged the students to go over-the-top in their designs.
To begin, we took a look at fashion sketches – the drawings that clothes designers used to plan out new clothing lines. In this way, students understood how their final product was to be shared with me.
Then, we started to brainstorm how to best communicate wealth and status: what could you wear to demonstrate, in a ridiculous way, wealth? Students, working in a pair-and-share arrangement, threw out ideas such as precious metals, technology, high-end fabrics, and more. But, through my encouragement and publicly celebrating out-of-the-box thinking, students started to really stretch themselves. One student searched online for “the most expensive thing” and found items like a $400,000 t-shirt and a $250,000 pair of jeans.
One of the side benefits of this activity was a rich discussion about what we place value on in our society. Gold cars? Yachts? Jewels? Designer logos? Brands? Showing off? It was also interesting to hear students talk about how fads can completely change – going from white skin and black teeth to today’s tanned skin and ultra white teeth. It also prompted some students to question why people follow trends at all.
My students had a great deal of fun with this while deepening their understanding of one of the roles of fashion and style throughout history. It reminded me of a video I watched featuring Dr. Carol Ann Tomlinson. In the video she reminded us educators that including student interest in instruction produces self-motivation in students.
If you are looking for a way to generate interest and engagement, try something hands on and engaging like this kind of an activity.