DOWNTOWN — The way Julie Koslowsky, director of teen services at the Chicago Public Library, sees it, the library exists to help teens learn about themselves and the wider world.
They can learn through books, obviously, but if they want to learn how to make their own clothes, the library will provide sewing machines. And if they want to learn how to apply eye makeup like a drag queen, the library will bring in an expert to teach them.
Drag queen Chamilla Foxx will lead a step-by-step tutorial for teens 13-19 called Drag Eye Makeup 4-5 p.m. Wednesday at Harold Washington Library, 400 S. State St. The event is full, but spots are available on the waiting list.
The class is not just for aspiring drag performers, Foxx said.
“They will have an understanding of makeup application that they can use for the theater or stage, Halloween or even toned down to everyday wear,” Foxx siad.
Drag Eye Makeup is just the latest in a series of programs called Radical Fit: Fashion and Beyond. Over the past three years in library branches across the city and online, the library has offered teens hands-on lessons in a wide variety of skills, from basic sewing and tie-dying to cornrows and contouring, things they might not have access to outside of TikTok and YouTube. All classes are free and include supplies the students can take home with them.
“Kids love it,” Koslowsky said. “Young people are always looking for opportunities to figure themselves out in a safe place. We’re building a community and giving young people an opportunity to express different aspects of their identities.”
Radical Fit began in late 2019. Koslowsky and her fellow librarians had noticed a growing interest in fashion design among teens who visited the library, many of whom were queer and wanted to learn how to make clothes that fit their bodies and identities. The librarians were able to invest in sewing machines, but someone needed to teach the kids how to use them.
Enter Sky Cubacub, a Chicago designer, activist and founder of Rebirth Garments, a line that caters to trans, genderqueer and differently abled people whose bodies aren’t served by conventional clothing.
“We connected to Sky and their work around sizing inclusivity, gender inclusivity and radical visibility,” Koslowsky said. “We decided to start offering fashion-based, gender-identity-based programs.”
The pandemic hit before the program could get off the ground, so the Radical Fit organizers pivoted to online education. The silver lining was the library amassed a robust collection of YouTube videos that moved beyond clothing design and textile art to include hair and makeup, but by 2021, everyone was eager to start working together in person.
Cubacub led a series of fashion incubators, working directly with teens to help them create their own fashion lines. Radical Fit and Cubacub teamed up with the Park District’s Queering the Parks program for a Queer Radical Fair where the young designers could show off their work. The first fair, which took place in Ping Tom Park in summer 2022, drew 1,000 visitors.
For its first three years, Radical Fit operated without much controversy. That changed this year, Koslowsky said.
“It’s a testament to where we are right now in the world in terms of groups who have more of a focus and are speaking out and looking to shut down conversations and spaces that have been created for expression in this way,” she said.
The library has been stalwart in its support of the program. So has the Chicago Public Library Foundation and other funders.
“It’s unfortunate that there are adults in the world that don’t like joy and are upset at other people expressing themselves,” Koslowsky said.
But the program continues, despite those adults. Later this month, there will be classes in henna art and vinyl-cutting so kids can make their own stickers and decals.
And if someone tries drag makeup or sticker-making and decides it’s not for them, Koslowsky wants Chicago teens to know there’s a lot more out there.
“We’re always trying to figure out how we tell more people about the breadth of resources the library has,” she said. “I always hope that when someone is embarking on something new, they think of the library.”
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