It’s been suggested that clothes make the man.
Include women, and that’s the idea behind Mathena Jencka’s TEDxYouth presentation, “The Voice of Fashion.”
The topic draws from a research paper the Upper St. Clair High School junior wrote regarding clothing in the context of U.S. history.
“The results were not surprising,” she said. “There is a very strong correlation between social change and fashion.”
She was among the students and staff members who participated in TEDxYouth@UpperSaintClair, a recent event organized by fellow junior Matthew Hornak as a local variation on the popular TED Talks.
Mathena’s examples drew from the past century, starting with what American women were donning in the 1920s, in the wake of their finally being allowed to vote.
“Women began to wear clothing that didn’t go all the way to their wrists and didn’t go all the way to their ankles,” she said. “It gave them even more of a voice to society, and the clothing that they wore gave them the confidence to stand up and say what they believe in.”
For a further stylistic shift in that direction, Mathena discussed the influence of a certain Hollywood star.
“There was lots of condemnation associated with what Marilyn Monroe was wearing,” she said, “but it inspired women to question why they had to dress so conservatively and why they were afraid to show off their bodies.”
She also cited civil rights activist Rosa Parks’ fashion choice on the night she was arrested in Montgomery, Ala., for refusing to give up her seat on a bus as having a “political connotation.”
“She never meant for her clothing to have a political connotation, but the night she was arrested, she was wearing her work blouse, work skirt, spectacles and a flower in her hair,” Mathena said. “This was very simple clothing, but it showed to society that she should be treated like everyone else, not differently, because of her race.”
Music’s impact on 20th-century American society represented the TEDx topic of Upper St. Clair band director Don Pickell.
“Culture and society are influencing music, but at the same time, music can influence society, and music can help make people think a certain way,” he said.
He cited such examples as the lively music of the 1920s giving way to more somber tunes during the Great Depression, and the protest-oriented songs of Bob Dylan and others heralding changes of opinion during the ’60s.
Part of his discussion focused on what he referred to as “kind of a gray area.”
“When you start talking about the moral influence and the moral impact and the moral responsibility that musicians have, then you start also going against the freedom of speech and freedom of expression,” he said.
In the 1980s, he said, the initial attempts to place warning labels on records were met with criticism from a diverse set of musicians including country artist John Denver, rock singer Dee Snyder and satirist Frank Zappa.
But on the other side of the coin are lyrics that tend to glorify irresponsible behavior.
“Musicians kind of have to take that into account, I think, as they’re putting their music out,” Pickell said.
Another TEDx presentation was by senior Mallika Matharu, on the topic “Stories of a Second-Generation Immigrant.”
“Every child with immigrant parents knows that one story, about how some elder, whether it was their parents or some random uncle, came to America with an unreasonably small amount of money in their pocket,” she said.
The daughter of a father from Kenya and mother from India, Mallika’s stories deal more with how she, as someone who was born in the United States, attempts to balance the influences of various cultures.
“Despite my mom’s constant efforts to teach me Hindi, I always pushed back,” Mallika said. “I was afraid that by embracing my culture at home a little more, I would lose the ability to blend in at school.”
That situation has changed.
“Thankfully, I don’t have this struggle anymore,” Mallika said. “Rather than having to choose a side, I embrace both, allowing me to shape the person I am and who I want to be.”
A total of 17 TEDx talks took place in two sessions at Upper St. Clair, with the overall theme of “Power.” The event marked the second Matthew has organized in as many years.
“I noticed whenever I started high school that I didn’t have much of a voice here,” he said. “I felt a little uncomfortable sharing my ideas, and I have quite a lot of opinions.”
For more information about the TEDx Program, visit www.ted.com/about/programs-initiatives/tedx-program.