From Habit to High Fashion


When Sister Aloyse Hessburg was asked whether she would prefer to teach cooking or fashion courses, she chose fashion. She did not want to go grocery shopping.

The rest is history.

Final Photo of S. Aloyse Hessburg

Photo Provided By ARCHIVES
Sister Aloyse Hessburg ensures quality of dress she designed to be worn by Mrs. James Robb in the White House wedding of her son, Charles Robb, to Lynda Byrd Johnson in 1967.

In 1965, Sister Hessburg founded Mount Mary’s fashion major, the first four-year fashion design program in the nation with a liberal arts foundation. Students choosing to study fashion would major in fashion design and minor in clothing and textiles.

While some may have balked at the idea of a nun directing a fashion design program, Sister Hessburg dismissed her critics in an interview with WISN 12 News, stating, “I was still wearing the black and white, sure. Then later we changed the habit and I was influential in making that change.”

With a bachelor’s degree in home economics and a master’s degree in clothing, textiles and applied arts, Sister Hessburg set out to prove that a nun is capable of applying her skill set and formal training in any related area, including fashion design.

Sister Hessburg enlisted some of the nation’s top designers to act as fashion critics for the department, helping senior design students develop their garments. She also started Mount Mary’s Historic Costume Collection, founded the annual designer fashion show and orchestrated the department’s New York and Paris study trips.

These trips give students invaluable insider exposure to the fashion scene at two of the most influential fashion cities in the world. Today, these trips and the annual fashion show continue to attract creative students to the program.

 During the early days, the department only offered a degree in fashion design, which would later be named apparel product development. Today, the department has expanded to include a merchandise management major with a minor in business administration for those who want to work on the business side of the industry.

Trish Kuehnl, graduate of the merchandise management program and now full-time merchandise management instructor, compares her early days as a student studying fashion with what students now have available to them.

“There have been a lot of changes in the department from the time I was a student here,” Kuehnl said. “We didn’t have guest speakers coming in to talk to us, we didn’t get so much hands-on experience as today, and at that time, only design students went on the study tours to New York and Paris.”

Nearing its 50th anniversary, the fashion department now boasts 130 students and has graduated influential students such as Donna Ricco, who designed a dress worn by First Lady Michelle Obama on a taping of the talk show, “The View,” and Eliza Audley, who has designed athletic apparel worn in the 2012 London Olympics.

Sandra Keiser, chair of the fashion department, said as the industry continues to evolve, so will the fashion department.

“We change just as fashion and technology does,” Keiser said. “As the world takes strides forward, we try to ensure that the department stays in step with the times.”

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