Laing is adept at interpreting fashion media, having completed a doctorate in cultural studies and previously taught theory to textile design students. It’s an especially important skill today as apparel brands employ visuals and text to engage with fraught issues like identity politics and ethical consumption. “People are surrounded by fashion media online and out on the street,” she says, “and you wonder if they’re asking critical questions about what’s being presented. What political assumptions — about identity, gender, sustainability — are embedded in the images? In the classroom, we unpick these assumptions and the politics behind them.”
Laing’s expertise in feminism and the theory of spectatorship makes exploring identity in relation to fashion and the politics of media a timely and provocative pursuit. In signature courses such as Fashion, Identity, and the Body, the endeavor becomes personal, too, as students bring their varied experiences — reflecting a range of origins and backgrounds — to bear in projects and discussions about dress practice, race, class, and environmentalism. “Our student body is diverse and intellectually curious, so the intersectional approaches they apply when analyzing fashion’s role in identity formation or discussing fast fashion are diverse, too. Students learn from one another as much as they learn from me, which supports our work to politicize the field and call its Eurocentrism into question,” says Laing.
Laing credits Parsons Paris’ setting in a global fashion capital, in addition to the curriculum and faculty, with attracting a distinctly international cohort. “Students here have exclusive access to the Azzedine Alaïa foundation, and the city’s resources for fashion research — the Galliera fashion museum, couture houses, heritage brands, creative leaders — are many.” And in turn, students in the program benefit from global perspectives on a surprising range of subjects. “In a recent class discussion, a student explained that Japanese washing machines typically have only one temperature setting; that’s important to know if you’re discussing how consumers can reduce their environmental impact through practices of laundering and garment care.” Similarly, a recent course project in which students built an exhibition comparing four national editions of Vogue magazine over the years provided an opportunity for students to draw on their various backgrounds as they reflected on the globalized nature of fashion media.
And because understanding the power dynamics at play in fashion images is central to social critique, Laing’s focus on spectatorship — theories exploring the relationship between viewer and viewed and the construction of identity in visual material — makes her an ideal ally for students advocating for change in fashion and the culture at large. “You can’t fully understand the history of fashion in relation to body size and inclusivity if you don’t understand whose gaze has been privileged in fashion media, for instance. And you can’t advocate for change unless you know how and where to shift the gaze and move the levers of image making.”
Laing’s courses train students in broadly applicable skills such as image analysis, interviewing, and material culture research while challenging them to explore investigative methods and ways their work might complement existing scholarly discourse or break new ground. Here Laing’s academic experience and comprehensive input go a long way to inspire emerging scholars. “Our community wants to expand the field’s topics of research and approaches. Part of my job is to listen, offer constructive feedback, and help students attain their goals through research resources and opportunities, internships, and access to practitioners, collections, and archives.” Students also benefit from access to The New School more widely — through study at the NYC campus and online resources — and its culture of progressive critical inquiry.
Laing cites TikTok content, hashtag-driven digital ethnography, and cultural practices of veiling as areas MA Fashion Studies students are researching. Where do such research paths lead graduates? “Some students go on to PhD programs; others work in archives or for fashion brands conducting digital curation,” she says. “Others develop new forms of exhibition and display for museums. Graduates stay in touch, so we know they are opening up a range of paths.”
“My ultimate goal is to empower students to cross disciplinary boundaries, bridge theory and practice, and generate original perspectives on fashion research,” says Laing. “As they investigate how fashion operates in different settings, our students are bringing together field research, theory, and activism in innovative ways. They’re asking important questions — about inequality, politics, the oppressive relationship between people and the environment — and not taking things for granted. They’re driving conversations on inclusion and sustainability. It’s a hopeful sign.”