The principles of fashion design

The principles of fashion design are not always taught, discussed in crits or consciously employed, but they exist nonetheless. They are an important part of the aesthetic toolkit and are the means by which designers can subtly adjust the focus and effect of designs. Knowing where to find them and change them helps you to view designs objectively. They are usually the key to why a design does or doesn’t work. Deliberately flouting these principles is as valid as using them with care if it gets the message across.

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Repetition is the use of design elements, details or trimmings more than once in a garment. A feature can be repeated regularly or irregularly. This multiple effect can be used to unify a design. Some examples of repetition, such as evenly spaced buttons, are so common a feature that we tend not to notice them until we see an irregular version. The human body is symmetrical, so some repetition is inevitable in the mirroring of one side with another.
Repetition can be a part of the structure of a garment, such as the pleats or panels of a skirt, or a feature of the fabric itself, such as striped or repeat-printed fabric or applied trimmings. From time to time asymmetrical garments such as single-sleeved tops or skirts that are longer on one side come into vogue as a reaction to the natural rule. Breaking the repeat has a jarring and eye-catching effect.

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Rhythm As in music, rhythm can create a powerful effect, whether it comes through the repetition of regular features or through motifs in printed fabrics.

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Graduation This is a more complex type of repetition where features of the garment are worked in increasing or diminishing sizes or steps. For example, sequins on an evening dress can be heavily encrusted at the hem but fade in number as they travel up the garment. Gathers could be full in the centre of a yoke, diminishing towards the sides. The eye tracks the different degrees of change through the design, so graduation can be used as a way of drawing attention towards or disguising body features.

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Radiation is the use of design lines that fan out from a pivotal point. A sunray-pleated skirt is a good example of this, but it can be more subtly deployed in draped garments.

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Contrast is one of the most useful design principles, causing the eye to re-evaluate the importance of one area of focus against another. It relieves the dullness of an all-over effect, such as a dress being worn with a contrasting belt. Colours draw attention to themselves and to the features and details that they frame. Placement of contrasting features requires care as they become a focal point. Contrasts in fabric texture heighten the effect of each material, for example a tweed jacket worn with a silk blouse. Contrasts need not be extreme; we talk of ‘subtle contrast’ in effect between wearing a suit with flat shoes high heels.

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Harmony is not quite the opposite of contrast, but it does imply similarity rather than difference: hues that do not clash, fabrics that blend well. Soft fabrics and rounded forms better lend themselves to harmonious design than sharp cutting or pressed garments. Italian fashion is renowned for its harmonious use of soft fabrics and colour mixed with organic and unaggressive tailoring. A collection that is harmonious is easy to mix and match and generally sells itself without advice from the salesperson.

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