A wide shot of a ceramics studio, featuring students working with pottery wheels and other tools.

80 Years of Fashion Innovation

Dress Design Class at SAIC, ca. 1962

by Jessica Barrett Sattell (MA 2015)

Department founder Cornelia Steckl in front of the Art Institute of Chicago, 1946. All photos courtesy of the Fashion Department

One spring day in 1934, the Dean of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) watched models wearing the bespoke creations of European couture-trained Cornelia Steckl drift by atop a Michigan Avenue parade float in a celebration of the World’s Fair and Chicago’s centennial. The Dean was so taken with the designs he saw that he invited Steckl to teach an evening class at the School called Dressmaking.

Steckl’s class was so popular that an entirely new Department of Dress Design was created to meet demand, and two years later it embraced the experimental, interdisciplinary philosophy the department is known for today.

This year, in honor of 80 years of fashion innovation at SAIC, the annual fashion show featured sophomores, juniors, and seniors presenting more than 200 cutting-edge looks ranging from ready-to-wear ensembles to conceptual, sculptural garments. This multimedia show was the result of a collaborative effort among several departments within SAIC. New Arts Journalism students wrote features for the Fashion 2014 magazine while Photography students contributed stunning images of the collections. In addition, students in Architecture, Interior Architecture, and Designed Objects (AIADO) designed and built the multilevel runway that became the centerpiece and canvas for the show, which was held at Millennium Park.

Faculty member and national award-winning designer Nick Cave revealed three performances featuring his famous Soundsuits throughout The Walk, the grand finale gala supporting student scholarships. Cave was also honored with the Legend of Fashion Award for his excellence in leadership at SAIC and field-expanding work within the fashion world that bridges art, fashion, performance, and social practice.

Art and fashion at the School have historically been intertwined, with students consistently engaged in a convergence of practices and collaborative discussion about the nature of fashion’s role in society.

Models show off SAIC student designs, 1954

The underlying motivation of the early Department of Dress Design was—as it remains today—to train artists of all kinds who were interested in fashion. Perhaps because its formative years spanned the Great Depression and the second World War, founding faculty fostered an outlet for students to explore creative problem solving and experimentation with materials.

During wartime fabric shortages, students took on the challenge of creating functional and thoughtfully designed clothing out of sheets, curtains, and upholsteries; one even designed a wedding gown that could be turned into kitchen curtains for a newlywed home.

The Department of Dress Design became the Fashion Design Department in 1962, and, in 1967, enrollment had swelled so beyond capacity that a portfolio-based selection process for admittance became necessary. A long list of renowned alumni began their career in the department’s studios, including Matthew Ames, Shane Gabier and Christopher Peters of Creatures of the Wind, Abigail Glaum-Lathbury, Gary Graham, Halston, Eunwha Kim, Maria Pinto, J. Morgan Puett, Cynthia Rowley, and Lawrence Steele.

Fashion class at SAIC, ca. 1968

From one evening class in the basement of the Art Institute 80 years ago to today’s breadth of opportunities to explore the changing landscapes of art and design, the Fashion department continues to merge traditional craft with digitalized technologies, embracing limitless creativity informed by a legacy of imagination and inspiration.