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Q and A with Fashion Designer Jessica Pattison
Assistant Professor of Fashion Design, Dr. Jessica Pattison, has had a wide array of experiences she brings to bear in her classes. She was a Division I volleyball player for University of Louisiana at Lafayette and worked in the fashion industry in New York with an international company before devoting her professional life to research and teaching. Here are some insights from this hands-on Radford professor.
Readers might be surprised to know that before you devoted your career to fashion and education, you were a Division I athlete. Can you talk a little bit about that?
I think that’s funny, because my undergraduate experience was my normal and what I thought it should be like.
I think there’s a misconception that athletes have it easier academically. Back then, we didn’t have fully developed academic centers for student success, let alone student-athlete success. (In hindsight, I believe there were less resources for all students to be successful and to manage with their mental well-being.) The standard was to keep our heads above water and stay eligible to play our sport. But, I managed to be a full-time Division I-A student athlete and highly involved on campus, in student-leadership, and NCAA Leadership Team positions and maintain a 3.8 GPA.
Was that difficult?
I came into college behind schedule in my ability to read at a college level. I was also eight-months post-op from an ACL reconstruction surgery, so I had to work hard. Some people view fashion design as a frivolous art and easy major, whereas, it is the complete opposite. Fashion design is a time-intensive, laborious, and taxing program. You must meet core university requirements while managing quantitative math and science, art studio and history, human behavior, and business acumen.
Your family background influenced your ultimate career path, right?
I came from a mother who is a full-tenured professor in retailing, merchandising, fashion design, and textiles science. But the biggest influence was my sisters. My two older sisters were pursuing their doctorates in medicine and English/creative writing, while I began my collegiate journey, so I suppose higher education was planted in my brain. But I didn't really know that at the time. I actually wanted to be a pediatrician or veterinarian or an interior designer coming out of high school. It all depended on where I was recruited for volleyball and the strength of the universities and programs I was considering.
But, when you graduated, you first went into the professional world before getting your Ph.D. Why did you go that route first?
I didn’t really want to pursue the higher education like the rest of my family when I graduated. My stepfather was in apparel manufacturing for Levi Strauss, Haggar, Hart Schaffner Marx, and Rutter-Rex. He suggested that I take time to really consider what I want to do and get an industry job in New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, or anywhere in Europe. He felt that I was very creative and talented and I “got the industry.” He thought I would benefit any company given my background and education, and would excel in rank rapidly.
How did that practical experience help you as a teacher?
I landed an assistant technical designer job in knitwear for a vertically integrated U.S.-Chinese business, Lafayette 148. I learned so much about the start to finish process--going from concepts to execution--by working for a company that manufactured everything in house. I learned how to communicate with people across the globe and within an organization, working with merchandise/buying teams and administration to get things done. Moreover, I internalized the importance of accuracy in technical sketches and information as a means to communicate non-verbally with sample sewers and non-English speaking employees.
I know I have been able to carry some of this to my students, especially when I grade their capstone collections and draping projects. It also is a guiding light that no matter how rough life gets for students, the industry and real world is less forgiving than I will be. I use my experience as a means to develop students professionally and prepare them for the real world. In college, they can make mistakes and course correct with me prior to entering the workforce.
What was the focus of your graduate work?
I spent almost two full years trying to figure out what to study in graduate school, because I really liked and could passionately pursue any sector within and find some sort of connection. So I went from studying post-Hurricane Katrina consumption behaviors of Vietnamese-Louisiana residents, to non-fibrous car materials, to understanding the influence of the Spanish-American War and America’s colonialism on Filipino dress and culture.
But ultimately, my student-athlete experience shaped my research. I connected with LSU volleyball players and pros playing overseas and in the beach volleyball circuit. I wanted to understand the influences of our in-sport dress on our everyday identities as people. I also wanted to investigate how the sport uniform became sexualized as hyper-feminine when so many of my teammates and peers did not personally dress consistently with the identity assigned to the sport. And to add to that, I wanted to know how one’s gender identity was informed through in-sport and out-of-sport appearances.
My doctoral dissertation touched on many facets of the apparel industry mentioned above but it really took my minor concentration in cultural anthropology to understand how space, place, and experience influence people and cultures. To complete my dissertation was complex and hard, as no one in my department researched anything that I was researching, nor understood the phenomenological approach to understanding dress and human behavior, especially in the context of collegiate sports.
You are currently teaching a History of Fashion class. What can such studies tell us about the past?
Oh, so much, as clothing has become a telling facet of many civilizations. Clothing is a commodity and something to be traded of value (silk, spun gold threads, wool, cotton, printing, etc.). I think we underestimate the influence of historical times and various world cultures on our clothing. We are so focused on the now and what we think without actually understanding the past and how the use and integration of clothing has been inspired and influenced by the human desire to explore.
What period of fashion history do you find most intriguing and why?
I love the Renaissance! The Northern Renaissance is particularly intriguing to me, as this was a prosperous time. Many aspects of life and culture flourished, such as writing and art. Through those things, we see technological developments in clothing conveyed to the masses. Pictorially, we see the “important” people dressed really well, but of course, we use portraiture as a means to express how we want others to perceive us. Renaissance clothing shows us what globalization looked like back then, as we see natural resources used that clearly did not belong in that place. Clothing was also a means of opening up trade and reflected the desire to expand ideologies and cultures.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about working in the fashion industry that students should understand early on?
Two-fold: first, some students think they will be the CEO or lead designer of a company immediately. They would benefit greatly from being patient and humble in their beginnings, studious and continuous learners, as they truly need to work on their soft skills to work within an organization and with others. They will see that they do not know it all and there is a process. They can learn from others, if they are willing to see others and themselves where they are at.
Second, you likely will find a different niche from what you initially thought you would be in and find that working in various components of the industry only helps one evolve, grow, and develop into a strong fashion designer. Play on your strengths from undergraduate school, don’t be afraid to fail and don’t be afraid to accept the wins!