Strutting Their Stuff

Three organizations are trying to remake campus couture from frumpy to chic, one runway show at a time

Women’s Wear Daily, in its survey of high fashion in the Ivy League, placed Harvard dead last. And perhaps it’s no surprise at a place where DHAs are the uniform for both section and sleeping. But three very different and high-profile fashion shows are trying to change Harvard’s decidedly dowdy image.

The players are few, and while there are many competing runway extravaganzas (see “Overnight Couture,” page 10), the contrast is most apparent among three. Foremost among them is Eleganza, with a reputation of being risqué and entertaining. Haute draws a smaller and more fashion-conscious crowd. And this year the Harvard African Student Association (HASA) will once again put on a fashion show featuring traditional and not-so-traditional African garb.

To the masterminds, the shows are a way to feature high fashion in a place that’s sorely lacking it, display outfits from across the pond, and even get a rise out of the audience. To others, though, the shows boil down to one word: entertainment.

KNOW THE SHOWS

Eleganza has grown since its creation in 1995, moving from its more humble beginnings in a dining hall to its current venue, the Bright Hockey Center. Last year the show drew an eye-popping 1,500 people, and this year, the show’s organizers hope to draw 2,000. “People that come keep coming back,” says Tessa C. Petrich ’07, one of the executive producers of Eleganza this year.

Eleganza, which is produced by BlackCAST, has created controversy in the past for its revealing clothes and racy staging. In 2004, The Crimson reported that the faculty adviser to the Association of Black Harvard Women publicy wrote that she was “shocked” and “disheartened” by the reinforcement of sexual stereotypes of black people in the show.

But Petrich says the show has since changed. “It’s not just about the bikini, it’s about the look for a resort. We wanted to step away from just a girl in a bikini,” Petrich says, “The show should be sexy, but it shouldn’t be about sex.”

Haute, only in its fourth year, has had smaller crowds and less criticism—nearly 300 people attended Haute last year, according to Abby M. Baird, ’08, a producer who is also a Crimson sports editor. “We don’t want to make it too big. We like that more intimate feeling,” she says. “We want it to be like a real fashion show, to show fashion as another art form.”

While Haute stresses the importance of viewing fashion as an art form, HASA seeks to explore fashion in terms of African culture. “Fashion is one of the most accessible means of creative expression,” says Elisabeth Y. Ndour ’08, president of HASA. “The fashion show is the best way to carry the culture on campus,” she says. “If you hang up a bunch of paintings, some people might come, but more people are able to appreciate the beauty in an outfit.”

BIG STAGE, BIG IDEAS

The Harvard Vestis Council, which sponsors the annual Haute show, “strives to bridge the relationship between art and the art of fashion,” according to its mission statement. And Baird, who is in charge of the group’s public relations, is trying to stay within that mindset. This year’s focus is “more artsy and less wearable,” she says. “We want it to be more couture. I think one of the points is to cultivate people to appreciate it.”

HASA’s mission goes beyond the art of fashion. It’s about cultural heritage. “The emphasis is not so much on how sexy the clothes are, but more on beauty and African art,” Ndour says. With a colorful Ethiopian scarf wrapped around her neck, Ndour spoke of the way that people in her native Senegal dress. “People mix colors very well,” she says. “Just the colors make a huge difference and could change Harvard’s mood.”

Eleganza isn’t setting out to change moods, but rather the way Harvard students think about fashion. “There needs to be an understanding that fashion is an art form,” Petrich says. “Some might say it’s not as rigorous [as other art forms], but I’d ask them to style an outfit.”

But for one former Eleganza model, the show merely entertains. Lindsay M. Weaver ’07 says that fashion is just fun. “People don’t go to look at the fashion,” she says. “It’s a show.”

Says Elizabeth D. Pyjov ’10, “It’s college, not fashion school.”

And while Harvard is certainly no Parsons, the coterie of Harvard fashion shows will continue to churn out big productions and bigger ideas—even if those ideas aren’t always apparent to the audience.