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Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Inclusive Style: Alison Cuddy on the Chicago Humanities Festival Spring Series

Photo by Ben Gonzales*

We recently sat down with Chicago Humanities Festival associate artistic director Alison Cuddy to talk about their new spring series, “Style.”

When I heard the upcoming Chicago Humanities Festival would be themed “Style,” I thought you’d mostly feature people connected with the design industry. But the lineup is actually a lot more encompassing: names such as Andrew Solomon and Arianna Huffington, though very remarkable, don’t necessarily evoke the subject. What was your selection process like? What kind of speaker were you looking for?
We have a pretty broad and inclusive notion of style. That’s how we tackle all our themes–we want to both satisfy and surprise people in the way we go about interpreting them. So fashion and clothing is a strong through-line of the fest but we also view style as a mode of communication–a way of expressing individuality or community. Huffington played a huge role in changing the style of news media–how we consume, distribute and engage with media–and in that sense she fits within our theme. We do a lot of creative thinking to make connections to our theme that aren’t always obvious.

Why would a seemingly superficial matter such as “style” deserve a whole festival centered around it–especially one usually dedicated to deeper ideas?
Oh, style is definitely deep! It is both everywhere (music, fashion, dance, film, politics, etc.) and elusive. That makes it a rich topic to dive into. Major cultural shifts, hip-hop for example, might happen through style, by affecting not just the music people listen to but the way they dress and speak, their attitudes and lifestyles. Style is about politics and economics–we have programs about the impact of cheap, disposable clothing and the variety of practices around and interpretations of hijab. Who wouldn’t want to talk about all this?

What does style mean to you? Is it a big part of your life?
I love clothing and fashion. I totally embrace the idea that style is a way to express yourself. I’m also fascinated by style as a mode of conformity and fitting in. That’s a theme of Margo Jefferson’s fantastic memoir “Negroland,” which explores how style is often something we don’t really get to choose, and the consequences of that for identity, individually or culturally. I can’t wait to hear her at the fest.

This is the first CHF happening in the spring. Should we expect two festivals per year from now on? Why did you decide to make this addition?
We’ve been expanding our programming and finding ways to engage audiences year round. People know and love us for the festival experience so we are excited to try it out at other moments of the year.

What differentiates the CHF from other events such as Chicago Ideas Week?
When we started out over twenty years ago there weren’t many people doing this kind of programming. I love that now there are more festivals and organizations in the game. It helps to elevate our citizens and our city. I think what makes CHF continue to stand out is that we are humanities-based, which means we are interested in exploring not just how, but why, things are the way they are. This world doesn’t come with easy or quick answers and I think audiences have proven to be up for embracing that complexity.

The tickets for the Iris Apfel talk** sold out like they were… going out of style. Any comforting news for the fans who won’t make it?
Yes, most of our programs are recorded and we try to upload to YouTube as quickly as possible. If you love Iris and couldn’t get a ticket, I encourage you to check out Isabel and Ruben Toledo, a dynamic husband-and-wife design duo known for their high-end, avant-garde clothes and collections for Lane Bryant. We are thrilled Chicago’s Maria Pinto will be with us, in conversation with Rachel Roy. So there are other great options!

The Chicago Humanities Festival “Style” series happens from April 28-May 1. More info at chicagohumanities.org.
Originally published in Newcity.

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*In the picture above, Alison Cuddy is sporting a Rachel Comey dress and a pair of Repetto shoes she got on "deeeeep" discount. Both purchased at p45, one of her favorite Chicago boutiques.  

**Unfortunately Iris Apfel's talk has just been canceled due to an acute bout of sciatica she's suffered.