Way Back Wednesday + Notes from Fashion 101
This week I’m going to give you a peek at my notes from my Fashion 101 “Design Brief” from London, 2006. I was 20 years old. I was lucky to walk into a class with instructors that were designers for Dame Vivienne Westwood… she’s noted in the notes… I remember so clearly of being terrified that I could get off the plane and get totally lost on my way to the flat… this was the reassurance provided by a smartphone. I navigated with a set of instructions on a piece of paper and a map. I survived – and now that I’m going through boxes and old things 10 years later, I see that my notes did, too.
Clothing is a form of non-verbal communication. It communicates aspects of our identity in visual form. Much has now been written about how clothing communicated ideas about gender and sexuality. These are two aspects of identity that fashion has constantly helped to define and redefine according to the historical, social and political moment.
In Western culture, the skirt is a gender-specific item of clothing – although in recent years there have been attempts to “undo” the female-specific association. In the 20th century, the shape and hemline have shifted and changed to create new seasonal and fashionable looks, and these changes in the appearance of the skirt have been tied into wider social, political and cultural issues.
For example, after the Second World War when clothing and fabrics had been rationed, Dior launched his “New Look” Collection (1947). The skirt was full and emphasized a small waist. It was seen as nostalgic and a “throwback” to previous definitions of femininity that were more traditional. The collection was criticized for this as women had been actively involved in the war effort and in a sense had “won” some independence outside of marriage and the home. But also the amount of cloth involved was criticized as being wasteful. The “New Look” skirt emphasized a traditional femininity and abundance, qualities that many yearned for after the war.
The mini skirt is another example of a design that has been discussed in broader social and cultural terms. It appeared in the mid-1960’s when the Women’s Liberation movement was gathering momentum, the contraceptive pill was introduced and “youth culture” emerged as a distinctive force within popular culture.
In the late 20th century and early 21st century is would seem that most design innovations have already been tried and tested. We now live in a world where design ideas, and images generally, are recycled and repacked in new contexts. For example, in 1986 Vivienne Westwood showed her ‘mini-crini’. This was a mini skirt combined with the structure of a crinoline – the 19th-century undergarment that structured the large full-length skirts worn by Victorian women. The two elements of this design could be seen to signal contradictory meanings: modernity and history, liberation and restraint, sexuality and modesty, as well as youth and maturity.
Westwood’s approach to historical fashion in a sense is a ‘recycling’. In contemporary fashion, the historical references are not so far away as we see in the 1970’s or other decades being reinvented each season. Looking to the historical past, whether near or far, is a part of the creative design process.
The Design Brief
Your brief is to research, develop and design a skirt and shirt/blouse. You will need to focus your research on hemlines, in both historical and contemporary fashion, and then choose a ‘moment’ to draw inspiration from your own designing. You should familiarize yourself with the social context for your chosen moment and think about the differences between then and now.
Stage One: Research
1. Gather research material about skirts, and hemlines, in particular. You should gather at least 50 visuals that can come from books, postcards, photographs, magazines, and your own drawings etc. These visuals should be widely sourced and not just torn out of magazines. A visit to the V&A should help. You should also look at different kinds of designer work: conceptual and commercial.
Each visual should be written about – what is it and what is interesting about it. You should also add any historical or other information relevant to the skirt and its hemline that you come across when researching. You should add your own observations as well, thinking about the functional and aesthetic values of your examples.
You will need an A3 sketchbook, which, when complete, should represent a full and comprehensive investigation of skirts and hemlines, demonstrating that thorough research has been undertaken.
2. Choose a historical moment to focus on in particular, if possible, making this also culturally specific, ie, British or American. Gather visual research as above about the fashion, other objects of design and aspects of society and culture such as film/photographic images. These visuals should be put in the sketchbook starting at the back. Is there anything particularly interesting about this historical moment? The textual research will also need to be added to the visuals so that you can evidence that you are informed about your inspiration.
Stage Two: Development & Design
1. Develop your design ideas visually or in writing through keywords, more extensive text, quotations or objects. These will be vital to determining what you design. Discuss them with your lecturer.
2. Using the ideas developed above, and the research you have gathered, generate ideas for skirts. You can work from one or more visuals or ideas per sheet in your sketchbook, or you can take one idea and gather lots of design from it across the A3 sheet. Ask your lecturer if you need to for advice.
These design ideas do not have to be perfect “fashion drawings”. It is more important that you generate lots of design ideas using your research as starting points. You should generate 50 different skirt designs in your sketchbook.
While designing you should be conscience of functional aspects of the clothing and the meaning or concept that you are communicating. Both of these aspects should determine the design ideas you generate.
Stage Three: Designing the Shirt/Blouse
Through negotiation with your lecturer, decide which skirt design you will take into cloth. Having made this decision, generate ideas for shirts/blouses to go with the skirt. A good way to do this is to draw the skirt many times across the A3 page and work through ideas for shirt/blouse designs about each of these. Again, you must work through a lot of possible designs before deciding on a final garment with your lecturer. In designing the shirts, remember the inspiration for your skirt and make sure that your blouse is compatible in terms of function ad concept.
Stage Four: Pattern and Making
Work with your lecturer to cut patterns and construct garments, derived from your design work.
Bibliography for Further Reading
Bolton, A (2003) Men in Skirts V&A Publishing
Breward, C (2003) Fashion Oxford UP
Davis, F (1992) Fashion Culture and Identity University of Chicago Press
Rouse, E (1989) Understanding Fashion Oxford
Tortora, P & Eubank, K (2005 4th ed) Survey of Historic CostumeFairchild
Note: There are many historical costume books giving a chronology of clothing styles, make sure you use one that gives the social and cultural context to the clothing.