About the Department

Fashion Through the Decades

Why is fashion so appealing to us as a society? Surely, there has to be more to it than the practical purposes of modesty and protection against the elements. And for that matter, what is it that separates fashion from "mere clothing"?

One possible answer is that fashion binds us to time and place, and reflects the social, economic, and political climate of the larger society. Thus, according to Charlotte Seeling, the allure of fashion lies in its ability to introduce us to "something new, always different, sometimes glamorous, sometimes shocking, futuristic one day, nostalgic the next … but never dull!" On the other hand, Cheryl Turnauer, coordinator of Harper College’s fashion department argues that "[i]t’s human nature" for us to "want what we see people wearing on film, on television, and in magazine spreads". Additionally, young people can differentiate themselves from older generations by the types of clothing they wear, or by their allegiance to specific brands.

But in a larger sense, fashion is also about masking or enhancing the wearer of the outfit. People are generally a combination of 2 or more body types – round all over, top heavy, and pear shaped – and each body type responds best to different styles of clothing. With the right combination of patterns, styles, and colors, a garment can be manipulated to meet the specific needs of the wearer and draw the eye in a way that compliments their appearance. To quote Kathleen O’Brian, a student in Harper’s fashion program in the 1970s, "[f]ashion is so much more than something you put on everyday. It’s art."

Not long after Harper College opened its doors, Elizabeth Gialdini conducted a feasibility study to determine if local companies would hire students who completed a two year fashion design program at the institution. At the same time, student counselors asked their charges if they would be interested in a career in the fashion industry. The positive responses from both camps led to the creation of Harper’s fashion design program in 1970 – the first such program offered by an institution of higher learning in Illinois. In fact, student response to the proposal was so great that although the department's coordinators intended to begin with twenty-four students, they attracted a total of fifty-seven. Naturally, this only served to highlight the lack of adequate facilities and materials. Thankfully, local clothing companies generously donated supplies to get the program up and running: ten yards of muslin; two ironing boards; six sewing machines; and two work tables. It wasn't much, but it was a good start.

Betty Gialdini

By the 1980s the program was benefitting greatly from its location in the Chicagoland area, where, according to a study done in 1988 by Tobe Associates, Inc. (a New York based apparel-industry analyst) "… designers understand the demands of a less-than-perfect figure, simple but elegant taste, and the desire for quality at a price." The Chicago chapter of The Fashion Group, Inc. – an international association of female executives from different segments of the industry - provided Harper's fashion students a place to exchange information about trends in the field, and also compete in a fashion show where professionals could critique their work. In addition, by visiting the Chicago History Museum (then known as the Chicago Historical Society) to view its fashion history exhibit, these novices of the apparel trade learned how trends from past decades were influencing contemporary clothing styles. Such exposure helped students grow as designers and expand their creativity. Furthermore, they took it upon themselves to create the Harper Bazaar, a club where they could draw upon each other for support and stage an annual fashion show that has since become a yearly tradition at the college.

Costume History at CHSHarry Gilbert

With such diverse sources of inspiration and support, the program was sure to be a tremendous success. And indeed, success came in rapid fashion. In 1983 and 1984, the Chicago area fashion shows were dominated by Harper students, who represented half of the finalists. This was especially impressive when one considers that many of the fashion shows put on in the 1980s featured well over two hundred submitted designs. By the end of the decade, Harper’s fashion program finally made its presence felt on the national stage when Rachel McAlpin was selected as one of winners in a national fashion contest held in New York. For the first time, Harper would be represented in an international fashion competition. But there was more to this event than a mere fashion show. Approximately sixty Harper fashion students took the trip to Paris to attend lectures on past and future fashion trends, and view student designs from around the world. Although Harper students didn’t win at this event, those who attended the competition certainly drew inspiration from what they saw – a vital step in their growth and development as designers. According to Beata Kania, an instructor in the program, "[t]he competition is global. That's how the fashion world operates …".

Nambu and GialdiniThe fashion department opened the new decade without one of its three founding members, as Chieku Nambu had decided to retire in 1988. Yet, this didn’t slow Harper down a bit. In late 1993, Alexandra Carden was chosen to go to Paris for the eleventh annual Air France Student design competition. She took top honors in the Fashion Group Chicago regional competition, and beat out other students from around the country to qualify for this event. Alexandra became only the second Harper fashion student to appear in this relatively new show, but she represented her school well, earning wild applause from the judges for the garment she entered in the competition. And this was only the beginning. For the rest of the decade Harper students would dominate the Fashion Group of Chicago events, winning top honors six years in a row, and beating out students from at least forty other regional schools. Indeed, Harper’s fashion students became so dominant, that they won, or were finalists in, a total of eighty competitive local and regional events in a seven year period between 1994 and 2001. One of them, Maria Diamantis, even won a scholarship to study at the Paris Fashion Institute while another, Tera Wegner, won first place in the 1996 International Young Fashion Designers Contest in Paris.

This was also a period of transition for the fashion program, as Sandra Clark, the last of its three original instructors, decided to retire in the spring of 1998. But she left behind a healthy department with ten faculty members, approximately two hundred full- or part-time students, and a plenty of recognition and respect in the fashion industry. Cheryl Turnauer took over the department in 1999, and under her guidance, the program continued to produce extraordinary student designers. In 2002, William Magoon-Makela won first place in the costume category at the Fashion Group International show in Chicago. The very next year, Harper’s fashion students took three of the top seven awards at the Midwest Regional Competition. A rawhide dress, produced by Megan Kearney, won her a spot as a finalist in the 2006 International Arts of Fashion competition. And, in 2009, Sabina Ajdinovic won the Fashion Group International’s annual competition along with a scholarship and chance to study in London for 10 weeks.

2004 Fashion ShowBut what really stood out during this time was the creativity involved in the production of the fashion shows themselves. By the beginning of the 2000s more responsibility was given to the merchandising students to apply their creativity towards this side of the fashion industry. The timing was fortuitous because the department had just hired Neil Tufano – a technical specialist – to help the students focus on staging and other logistics. Additionally, the students were beginning to think outside the narrow confines of their department, and sought assistance from other programs at Harper College to produce the fashion shows. The results spoke for themselves. Whether they were trying to simulate a scenic walk through Central Park or recreate the Garden of Eden, Harper’s fashion students created atmospheres as pleasing to the eyes and ears as the garments on display. The 2004 fashion show, named "La Piazza", was a perfect example of this new orientation. Students wanted the proceeds from this show to go to a safe house being built for victims of domestic abuse, and incorporated this larger goal into the their designs for the set. So while the show recreated the feel of an Italian marketplace, the students selected colors and props that would reflect the inner strength of those women who have survived their ordeals. (For a behind the scenes look at the production of the 2004 fashion show, please click here.) Soon, the layout of the fashion shows became as big of an attraction as the garments on display, and people began flocking to the annual event, drawing several hundred to several thousand people each year.

The fashion program continues to thrive, thanks to the creativity and ingenuity of its students and instructors. And even though Cheryl plans to retire at the end of the fall 2014 semester, the past four decades seem to indicate that the future will remain bright for these up and coming superstars of the fashion industry.


If you are interested in pursuing a career in fashion, check out the Fashion Design and Merchandising Department's website for more information!

You can also view the department's Fashion Sketchbooks to get an idea of what you will learn in the program and see examples of garments designed by students.