Defining Fashion

What is fashion? Discover the origins of fashion, the key elements, and its place in modern society.

What defines fashion?

Fashion embodies something more than simply covering the human body. It has a greater sense of purpose, deeply embedded in social and cultural history. Whatever draws you to fashion, be it escapism or your own way of engaging with the world, diving into this sector can help you make sense of fashion as more than just a business, and rather, as an art form. 

On the surface, fashion is best defined as the style of clothing and accessories worn by people. The term can also refer to people’s hair, makeup, decoration, and behavior during a particular period. Fashion is, however, a concept with multiple layers. 

For many, it is much more than your clothes and shoes. It is not just the latest trends in magazines or knowing what and what not to wear. Fashion is an art form that represents freedom of choice. It enables self-expression and creativity, capturing an individual’s unique qualities and inner power.

Fashion is often viewed as frivolous, but it lies at the heart of our cultural history. It tells the stories of a particular time and place, providing valuable insight into those who have come and gone before us. 

Why is fashion important?

Fashion is huge. The industry itself is a multibillion-dollar enterprise committed to the making, marketing, and selling of clothes. It is one of the largest industries in the world, relying on the hands and minds of millions of people worldwide, from pattern cutters and textile designers to buyers and stylists.

Fashion is important to society because it has a powerful impact on everyone. It has the ability to connect to all of us, forming a relationship whether we like it or not. We all wear clothes, shoes, and accessories in ordinary life. Often, the items we buy are representative of our personalities. 

Fashion evolves with the times and serves as living cultural history. In wearing clothes, we are continuously documenting our journeys on this planet. It reflects multiple aspects of culture, including belief systems, wealth, status, empowerment, and more.

When did fashion begin?

Fashion has been here since humans started wearing clothes. The earliest clothes were made from naturally available materials and simply wrapped or tied around the body. Sources included fur, leather, plants, grass, and bone.

The clothing documentation dates back to ancient times when prehistoric humans wore cloth made from vegetable fibers. In colder climates, humans wrapped themselves in animal skins to keep warm.

While clothes have been around for centuries, we can pin the beginnings of fashion as we know it today to 1826. Here, the first modern fashion designer arrived and ultimately built the foundations for the future fashion designers that followed.

English-born Charles Frederick Worth founded the first fashion house, House of Worth, in Paris in 1858, specializing in haute couture, ready-to-wear, and perfumes. He dominated Parisian fashion, revolutionized the fashion business, and is considered by many to be the father of haute couture—the most expensive, high-quality clothes in fashion.

The fundamentals of fashion

In terms of the design process, fashion has a handful of fundamental principles. Behind every masterpiece is a strict set of rules and practices that make it perfect. 

These rules are concepts that designers in the field use to arrange and create the structural elements of a design. They provide a checklist that ensures the designer covers all critical components to make a design visually satisfying. All of these principles aim to make the viewer want to wear their garment. 

Silhouette, line, color, and texture are some basic ingredients of the design process. But the five fundamental principles of fashion design are balance, proportion, emphasis, rhythm, and unity (or harmony).

Balance

In fashion design, balance describes a garment’s visual aspect. It explores how the overall weight of the garment’s parts and features are distributed, be it a sleeve or a cuff. The design must appear visually stable to the viewer, with details and parts arranged in a particular way. 

The balance of a garment can be symmetrical or asymmetrical. Symmetrical balance is also known as formal balance. It occurs when two parts on either side of a design are identical to one another. Matching pockets on either side, for example, represent symmetrical balance.

Asymmetrical balance is the opposite. It is also called informal balance and occurs when one side of a garment is different from the other. A good example of asymmetrical composition is a one-shoulder blouse. A one-shoulder blouse looks visually interesting and still achieves a sense of balance, whereas a jacket with unequal lapels might appear unbalanced.

Proportion

Proportion refers to the ratio of all design elements to one another, concerning parts such as size, quantity, and color. When a garment is proportioned correctly, it creates a harmonious relationship between all parts and spaces. For example, when sketching an image of the human figure, proportion refers to the size of the head in relation to the rest of the body.

Proportion creates a pleasant feeling of unity when the design is complete. Ultimately, the proportion is what makes the various components of a garment look great together. Without proportion, designs appear off-balance.

Emphasis

Emphasis, also known as the focal point or center of attraction, is the point of interest that draws the viewer’s eye to a particular part of the design. Designers implement the emphasis principle by contrasting one specific area to the others, using techniques such as color, texture, size, and the use of lines. It brings attention to the most important aspect of a garment, and many designers use this principle to emphasize the overall theme or concept.

Rhythm

Rhythm is the repetition of one or more visual elements of a garment, such as patterns, colors, shapes, and textures. These components are used repeatedly to create continuity and controlled movement, promoting excitement in the viewer. Rhythm makes a design come to life and helps draw the eye to and from the different elements.

Unity/Harmony

The final principle of fashion design is unity, which is also known as the harmony principle. It is a crucial concept that brings together all design principles to create the finished look of a garment. 

The designer must combine all elements in such a way that the final invention is harmonious, with every part purposefully placed and well-matched. Essentially, the design appears complete rather than disorderly and unfinished.

Understanding the fashion cycle

The fashion cycle refers to the life span in which the fashion exists and the process that it travels through. Fashion ultimately rises and phases out over time. It moves through five stages: introduction, rise, peak, decline, and obsolescence.

The cycle begins with the introduction of a new style produced in small quantities. The second stage sees the trend rise in popularity. Manufacturers replicate and mass-produce the limited designs for a cheaper cost. 

In the third stage, the style is at its peak. It is widely accepted among the mainstream audience and is stocked by most retailers. The peak phase is unpredictable. Fast fashion designers often update the original style with alternative details to prolong its peak length.

The decline stage occurs when consumer demand for a particular product is limited due to market oversaturation. People no longer want to wear the item that everybody else is wearing. 

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