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One of the first lessons that novice learners of design in fashion learn is about the elements and principles of fashion design. Communication is a human need, and language has evolved as a medium to convey one’s message to another with minimal distortion. Language has taken many forms across cultures, beginning with hieroglyphs, and every form has developed its own grammar, alphabetical elements, and semantic principles. Fashion is also a medium of self-expression. During its evolution, it has formulated its own grammatical and structural rules, which may be understood as the elements and principles of fashion designing. Designing clothes is not an arbitrary process but a dynamic field of study continuously adapting, evolving, and experimenting. While it is general knowledge that innovation is a fundamental skill required to become a fashion designer, innovation should not be confused with serendipity. New forms of fashion design can be explored while keeping the fundamental elements and principles in mind to ground the design in the long tradition of fashion. Young fashion designers must consolidate their understanding of the fundamentals before anything else.
Before moving on to the description of elements of fashion design, it should be clarified what one means by elements. An element is a fundamental entity that defines the constitution of an object or an idea. The elements of fashion design are the fundamental components that make the design of an outfit possible. Without these elements, it would not be possible to amalgamate design as a discipline and convert abstract ideas into material reality.
As a visual perceiver, the first element any person notices in a design is colour. One may not have the technical faculty to instantly identify the use of other elements like line or texture, but colour is something that everyone is capable of noticing and understanding. Each colour has different emotional and creative functions to serve in a design and is meticulously curated to align with the concept. Colours are examined in three aspects: hue, value, and intensity. Hue is how the colour is publicly identified, for example, blue, green, red, etc. Value depicts the lightness or darkness of a colour; intensity or chroma is how bright or dull the colour is. As the chroma of a colour reduces, it reaches closer to the colour gray in the spectrum.
The line is a crucial element of all art forms. They have a special place in painting, dancing, poetry, and even music. As an element of fashion design, lines provide flow to the garment and direct the viewer's eye to the desired focal area. Straight lines impart sharpness or crispness to the garment. Formal clothes like suits typically have straight lines for people to appear sharp and professional. Curved lines, on the other hand, signify fluidity and softness. During pride month, an art installation in a museum, consisting of two long pieces of fabric rolling around in currents of air, became widely famous. The curvature of the fabric rolling in the air resonated with the idea of gender fluidity and the curved or ‘unstraight’ possibility of gender identity, an idea that was amply reflected in the design.
Shape is also known as silhouette and refers to the outline of the outfit. For example, the silhouette of a chikankari kurti is different from that of an angrakha. Silhouettes can be used for accentuating different body parts. The silhouette should necessarily complement the wearer's body shape and align with the trend of the times. The choice of a silhouette is also contingent upon the season, taste, and occasion. Sheath silhouettes, hourglass silhouettes, and A-line silhouettes are some of the most common ones.
Texture refers to the nature of the fabric and how it looks and feels against the skin. The way a fabric has been created and the nature of the thread decides its texture. Khadi clothes are rougher in nature than silk clothes because of the qualitative difference between the cotton and the silk thread. This texture decides the weather and the occasion during which the outfit can be worn. For example, people prefer to wear a silk saree for a celebratory occasion than a cotton saree. On the other hand, for formal settings or for countering hot weather, they may resort to cotton sarees carried with a lot of grace and are ideal for hot Indian summers.
Having gained familiarity with the elements of design, it is crucial to understand how these elements can be brought together to create a stunning design. Mere learning of the alphabet does not bestow one the ability to frame proper sentences and communicate meaningfully. To accomplish that, one needs to learn the principles of grammar to create a meaningful combination of alphabets into words to create meaningful sentences. Similarly, principles of design in clothing are guidelines, following which a designer can create a cohesive and artful garment.
It is an age-old adage that excess of anything is bad. The adage is a principle of design as well. Balance is a crucial component of design composition. It can be understood as the weight of the design perceived visually. Balance in a fashion design composition is maintained in two ways– Symmetrical or Formal balance and Asymmetrical or Informal balance. Symmetrical balance occurs when a garment can be divided along the vertical axis to produce two similar sides. Elements of design are placed evenly for a formally balanced outfit. Asymmetrical balance is unequal and one side of the design is not obligated to mirror the other side. However, usually, there is one fulcrum point across which such outfits are balanced.
Rhythm directs the movement of the viewer’s gaze upon the garment. It allows the gaze to glide easily from one point to the other. It holds the design elements together and makes the composition cohesive. Rhythm can be created by a recurrence of elements in the design. Repetition of colour, lines, or texture imparts rhythm to the garment in a vertical, horizontal, radial, or spiral manner.
All art is characterised by the unity of its form and elements. Unity is the fundamental requirement for any art or design piece to be renowned as good. The understanding of proportion and a general synergy between the elements is crucial for a good design composition. The design elements and principles should complement each other to impart unity to the design. Many times unity is also referred to as harmony.
Emphasis in a design is the point of focus where a designer wants the viewer’s attention to lie. It acts as a centre of interest bringing thematic unity to the garment. It grounds the conceptual image of the outfit and anchors the design. Any element of fashion design can be used to provide emphasis to a particular section of the design. The emphasised portion is expected to halt the viewer’s gaze and demands concentration. It is a pause in the overall rhythm of the design.
It is not enough to simply bring the elements of design together in a composition, they need to be brought together in the apt proportion to get the desired effect. Proportion among the design elements makes the garment more pleasing to look at. It defines the relationship of one design element to others. Excess or dearth of any element disturbs the proportion of the design and makes it unbalanced.
Draping is the way a fabric is worn over the body. It takes into account the position of the fabric which is then pinned at ideal position. It is a unique way to add subtle complexity to the design without reducing the simplicity of its beauty. The Indian saree is an internationally acclaimed example of the transformative capability of draping. At the outset, the saree is a seven yards long piece of fabric and appears to be daunting and confusing. Once it is draped around the body, it is the most graceful, rhythmic, balanced garment in the history of clothing. In fact, the modern age does not dictate saree to be worn only by women. Across social media, various male models are emerging who drape the saree in a manner that complements the masculine form. People of non-heterosexual gender identities have also devised new ways of draping a saree that reflect the pride of queerness and bring innovation to the field of fashion design. The transformative capacity of draping is unlimited, and it is one of the most significant principles of fashion design.
The understanding of principles and elements of fashion design shall allow a spirited designer to brew breathtaking compositions in their mind and translate the idea into reality. Whether it is couture designing or designing clothes for everyday usage, following the basic principles of fashion design will prove fruitful to all creative designers. One should use them as a guideline to produce better quality designs, but they should not let these principles limit their imagination. Once one knows what these principles and elements of fashion design are, one can use them in unusual ways to create garments that signal the incoming of a new era of fashion design.
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