In schools, a trend toward fashion

Teens show a revived interest in design and sewing, fueled by television programs

January 08, 2007|By John-John Williams IV | John-John Williams IV,Sun reporter

Streaks of fuchsia, brown, and denim blue went flying out of the box like confetti as a dozen excited teenage girls snatched pieces of fabric in hopes of creating the masterpiece of the day: a purse.

"You found denim?" asked one member of Columbia's Wilde Lake High School fashion club.

"Yeah, I did," Kelly Hetzler, 16, proudly responded as she held up a large piece of dark-blue denim. "It was at the bottom of the bag."

Their after-school club, which was formed this fall and has 30 members, reflects a resurgence in fashion interest among American high-schoolers. After years of relative dormancy, sewing and fashion classes are back.

Like a cooking craze of a few years ago sparked by Iron Chef and other cooking programs, the revival of fashion is being fueled by TV.

Shows such as Project Runway and America's Next Top Model have expanded the fan base for high couture, added a competitive element to the industry and have made household names out of fashion designers such as Michael Kors and classic catwalkers like Janice Dickinson.

Until a few years ago, sewing and home economics classes were all but extinct at most high schools - a result of growing curriculum requirements caused by the need to teach for standardized tests. But some schools have revived sewing programs, others have started clubs and there are more students enrolled in design-related classes in career technology programs.

Enrollment in the state's only clothing apparel and textiles programs - taught in Carroll and Montgomery counties - has jumped from 232 students in 2004 to 399 this year. Enrollment in the state's only high school fashion merchandising program, in Baltimore County, has remained about 290 students for the past two years.

Marjorie Lohnes, supervisor of Carroll County's career and technology education, said her system never dropped traditional home economics courses, even when classes were being scrapped nationwide during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

"We just had a shift in the types of focus to food preparation and child development," said the former home economics teacher who has taught in Carroll County for more than three decades. Classes are now called family and consumer sciences.

"Now all of those students want to go to Parsons, FIT and some of the colleges that train in fashion design," Lohnes said, referring to the Parsons School of Design and the Fashion Institute of Technology. "Now some students see it as a career option."

The craze is also being felt at the post-secondary level, according to Lynne Gilly, Maryland Department of Education's program manager for career technology education instruction.

Anne Arundel Community College's interior design program has increased from 24 degree-seeking students in 2004 to 43 in 2005.

In addition to the career technology programs she manages for Maryland high-schoolers, Gilly shares the responsibility of directing post-secondary education programs like the one at Anne Arundel Community College.

"Certainly kids' interest in these programs has made them aware of career opportunities," Gilly said, referring to the television programs. "It helps inform their career exploration early in life. We do want them to know about the wide array of career opportunities available to them."

The Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore started an experimental fashion concentration minor and five fashion-related classes this fall, according to Monee Cottman, a spokeswoman for the college.

"The latest generation thinks that they could be the next big star on Project Runway," Cottman said.

Karen Koza, spokeswoman for the Home Sewing Association, said Project Runway and the other television shows are "definitely helping to amplify the popularity of sewing."

According to research by the Monroeville, Pa.-based association, there are about 35 million sewing enthusiasts in America, a figure that has grown rapidly in recent years.

Before Project Runway, a designer competition show on Bravo, and America's Next Top Model, a may-the-best-beauty-win competition on the CW, reality television shows like Iron Chef, Hell's Kitchen, and American Idol influenced high school curricular and extra-curricular activities, according to Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University who is considered a leading expert on reality television.

The imprints of American Idol format of auditions and critiques are in activities such as school talent shows and spelling bees, according to Thompson.

Several years ago, cooking shows like Iron Chef and Hell's Kitchen inspired more students - especially males - to pursue cooking classes and careers.

"Anecdotally, I've heard that more men have been willing to take food preparation classes since the advent of [these shows]. It made making food machismo," Thompson said. "There were college fraternity parties that were centered around the show."

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