Sustainability, drag senior project

Senior Joelle Tangen poses with a piece in her mini-collection that brings together sustainability and drag, at the Human Sciences Building on Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2020, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Senior textiles, merchandising and fashion design major and Honors Program student Joelle Tangen has taken on the task of intersecting two very different ideas to create her art: drag and sustainability. 

The idea of drag and drag clothing is to break the barriers of gender norms to create clothing that is able to express the person as who they are. For Tangen, this looks like earth-toned hardy nonconforming clothing, such as cargo shorts. 

Each year, seniors in the Honors Program must create a project that allows them to showcase their individual talents and abilities. Whether it be through a thesis paper or a physical project based on their major, these seniors have a year to complete their project and graduate from the Honors Program. 

“I wanted my honors project to be something fun. I didn’t really want to go the traditional thesis route, and since I have an art major, I can do a non-traditional project and get away with that,” Tangen said. 

Her advisor and mentor, associate professor Sandra Starkey, said she believed this project was clever and fresh. It was something that had not been done much before, and Starkey said she was impressed by Tangen’s ability to bring these topics together. 

“It takes ambition to tackle this type of project,” Starkey said. “I have only worked with one other student interested in drag fashion, and it was in a more traditional sense. Joelle approached the topic in a uniquely creative way by adding in the sustainability component.”   

This idea of stepping outside of the box might be nerve-racking for some, but Tangen said she knew what she had to do and found her inspiration along the way. Tangen was able to find one person who displayed both of her interests: Pattie Gonia, a sustainable drag queen who combined their love for the environment with drag. 

“I’ve always been interested in sustainability, but also drag fashion. As it was coming time to narrow down my project, I was thinking that I would have to focus on one or the other,” Tangen said. “One of my main inspirations was Pattie Gonia, a drag queen activist, and I thought it was really cool how they were able to blend sustainability and drag at the same time.” 

After realizing she was able to take her two passions and mesh them together, it was full steam ahead for Tangen. She submitted her sustainability and drag honors project idea in March 2019 and began creating her pieces shortly after. 

Tangen spent the majority of her time in the sewing studio located in the Human Sciences Building on East Campus. Sitting at her work station, surrounded by multiple beige-colored dress forms, Tangen scrolled through images of Pattie Gonia to find her drag inspiration. 

The coronavirus pandemic added a set of unanticipated challenges at the beginning of this project. Whether it be getting enough hours at the sewing studio or being able to find material, the whole process became increasingly difficult with time, according to Tangen.

Tangen wanted to emphasize the importance of sustainability in fashion by using recycled materials found at thrift stores or by utilizing leftover material from online factories. During the creation of her first project back in April, however, these supplies were difficult to come across with the closure of most businesses due to the pandemic. 

“I wasn’t sure how I was going to get cargo material because a lot of the thrift stores I considered going to weren’t open. I ended up getting these [cargo material] from the Black Market thrift store, and I think they opened back up in April or May,” Tangen said.  

It was troubling for her to work with the restrictions she said, but Tangen was able to complete the task and focus on the aspects most important to her. Starkey said she was amazed by Tangen’s ability to adapt and focus on people or gender ideas that are seen less in the mainstream fashion market.

“As designers, we need to be thinking about sustainability regardless of the target market. I applaud Joelle because it is a creative approach to dressing that is fresh and quite relevant,” Starkey said.  

Tangen was forced to work quicker than ever before to get her first piece finished, to hopefully begin her second piece. Joelle has two pieces of clothing left to make before the project deadline in March 2021. 

Switching from drag queen to disaster for her second piece, Tangen will still keep her drag inspiration in mind and continue to use secondhand clothing to create her looks. She cited photographs of oil spills as her inspiration for this look. Although this second project has not begun taking physical form, she has spent plenty of time in the sewing studio working hard on her sketches and finalizing her thoughts. 

Through this project, Tangen said she hopes to raise awareness around the university and community about the importance of sustainability and environmental awareness. After she graduates, her goal is to work for a fashion brand that focuses on sustainability.

“I am very stressed out about climate change, and that is kind of why I ended up choosing this major,” Tangen said. “The fashion industry is one of the worst polluters on the planet. I wanted to go into fashion just to try to hopefully be somewhat of an influence on that.”