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Principles Of Design

( Originally Published 1924 )

There are two kinds of design, structural and decorative. Structural design deals with basic construction. Decorative design deals with ornament and the making of the structure more impressive, as painting and carving do in a building. Clothes must embody something of each kind of design. As structural design, they change the figure, correct imperfections, and, in some periods of fashion, almost conceal the figure. As decorative design, they add importance and charm to the most beautiful features of gown and figure.


The proportions in the curves of a line must be observed. Obvious curves should be avoided ; while there must be a reverse to e curve, it should not be obvious.

The straight firm lines of masculine apparel are not so by mere chance. They are there to express those stern virtues that make the man ; and every curve, however slight, brings a different connotation. So it is with woman. If she affects straight hard lines in her dress, she tells the world of her integrity, her will-power, and her regal poise; and she must inevitably live the part. But let those same straight lines be draped loosely of soft materials, fall easily to the figure, and change with each motion of the wearer, and we have that gracious air that is ideally feminine,

The round line unmistakably belongs to the rollicking pleasure-loving soul, and each heavy curve proclaims its wearer as one who chooses above all comfort and material ease. One has only to consider certain oriental costumes, or the crinoline days of Louis XV.

The quality of wavering lines seems self evident, yet everywhere one sees the human figure obscured by strange bumps and puckers or hidden under a scrap-heap of stupid ornament, hair tortured into weird and insane outlines that could seem to have no possible relation to an ordered and a charming mind.

As for the necessity of attractive proportions, let us consider the line of the brim in a picture hat.


In a drawing, lines put together depict forms; in nature, the forms alone exist and the lines are what we imagine we see where the form changes. For example, see the change in the line of a pro-file as the head is turned. So line and form are inseparably linked together. Most forms are in the round ; yet, noting them one phase at a time, we really see them as flat arrangements of light and shadow, line and mass. Therefore it is possible for us to analyze the design of the human figure and its draperies; therefore it is true that each new motion of the figure creates a new design.

The primitive forms are those abstractions, the square and the circle. All others, no matter how truly alive they seem, are but variations. Of these the triangle is the strongest and the egg-shape or oval the most graceful. The human figure is the ultimate combination of form, the oval and triangle predominating. In the feminine figure the oval is more pronounced.

In designing the structure of a dress, any of the variations of form may be superimposed upon the human form and stressed by repeating detail. Adherence to one specific form tends to give a distinct style value. The square coiffures and square hoop skirts of the Spanish infantas of Velasquez' day possess undeniable distinction; the tapering train and tall pointed head-dress of the medieval princess gave her stately and romantic charm, while the myriad curls and billowing flounces of the belle of 1830 were perfection of curves and frivolity.


Movement leads the eye from one part of the design to another.

Rhythm means repetition. Its force is mesmeric in any art, be it music or dancing or architecture or just clothes; and the woman who would bind her audience in a spell and press her point beyond the possibility of dispute will make rhythm serve her. Repetition of long lines for height and dignity, repetition of frills and furbelows for youth and gaiety, repetition of gracious forms or stern ones, all mean rhythms. One must never forget that those rhythms are most effective which are in accord with the spirit of the wearer.

A woman who desired to create the impression of much dignity wore a gown of coin-spotted foulard. Her hat was ornamented with pinwheel cockades and her slippers had round buckles. There was perfection in this consistent repetition, which the beholder instantly sensed ; but the spots so surely suggested the clown that she was inevitably pronounced a wit, and her most erious statements were met with laughter. Poor dear! she hated jesting and was covered with confusion.

Opposition is another powerful aid to the cunning of the artist. It carries the force of shock. We have it wherever lines come together from diverse angles, or when unlike forms come into juxtaposition. This gives a violent emphasis, very useful in advertising a beauty or an ugliness. Bring an X or V into the cut of the costume and the crossing of the lines will force the attention of the beholder. A pendant ornament on a necklace will for this reason inevitably rivet the eye. A square neck opening opposed to a round chin will do its good or evil work unerringly. (Diagram IV).

A most charming lady found herself too inconspicuous to receive the attention really due her. She and her mirror held a consultation. They liked the gracious curves of her simply draped gown, they liked her smoothly coifed hair. They considered critically her dainty pumps and small draped turban. Each was exquisite. But some-thing must be changed. Should she wear red slippers? No ! The hat ?—Yes. She chose a snappy shape and cocked it at a rakish angle. It was of course quite wicked, but her natural dignity carried it well and she made a brilliant sensation. An imitator who lacked clear perception added a similarly rakish hat to an already astonishing costume and only succeeded in making the spectators feel such bewilderment that they were glad to look away.

Rhythm is powerful because it is monotonous and lulls the mind to sleep; opposition, because it startles one awake. Each has its use, but each becomes unbearable if unrelieved, and a too sudden change from rhythm to opposition tends to be ugly and unsuited to logical design. Therefore we must have transition. If a square and circle must be used together, oval forms may gently connect them —better still to have the square rounded at the corners and the circle not so perfect in roundness. A V neck-line and the curves of the human head look better together when the V is curved a bit and reminds one of a U.

A girl who had a street frock made on bouffant lines chose a tricorn hat as its complement. The effect was harsh and uncompromising. She had al-most lapsed into despair when an artist suggested a medium-length string of heavy beads. The long slim oval they formed broke up the space of the plain bodice attractively and formed an agreeable transition between the angles of the hat and the curves of the skirt.

Unity and Center of Interest

In planning any work of art, be it a Greek temple, a short story, or a costume, we need fortitude to discard all extraneous material. A work of art is a thought made concrete, and every frill and ornament that is unnecessary to the expression of that thought actually detracts from it. Unity means that nothing could be added to and nothing taken away from the design without altering its meaning. Imagine a gown in the throes of creation. It is to make its wearer tall and dark and sveldt. One jetted ornament will hold the drapery, but here temptingly at hand are fringes and bandings and flowers ! But we shall achieve Art only if we have the courage to hush their coaxing, and cling to the main idea.

Women on our city streets show many examples of ill-assorted unrelated design. One such—a taffeta frock "trimmed" with circles of frills, heavy pointed pendant, square-toed oxfords, light hose, slim chiffon scarf, and trim cocq-feathered hat—showed warring elements each demanding attention. Later the same puffy frock appeared with stubby French slippers, and a hat that reminded one of a poke bonnet and framed the most adorable round face and wide eyes. One wondered if the face had been worn with the other costume. Probably but the clothes had created such a commotion that one hadn't seen it.

Each design must have a center of interest, some-thing which holds the eye more firmly than any out-going line or circling spot. It may be the main ornament of a gown; it may be the white hands of the wearer ; it may be her shining head. Without this center of interest the eye grows weary and the mind confused. The idea will not be appreciated.

A sweet faced little lady used to wear a perfect costume—very simple, with a little pattern in hat and scarf that served to frame and add importance to the head. An enthusiastic friend gave her a bag of matching design which was so compelling a decoration that it distracted attention from the face toward itself and actually divided the whole picture in two parts, each demanding the honor of being the more important. No matter how well poised she felt thereafter, the poor little lady always looked sadly distraught.

Balance and Proportion

Balance means rest—poise. We need it some-times in our hectic modern lives more than we realize, and Art should give it to us. The simplest balance is bisymmetric, or two sides alike, Many costumes are planned thus, but even they prove difficult when the figure turns and the direct front or back view is lost. Here we must have occult balance. Occult balance can not be measured, it depends upon feeling. Observation and judgment may help, but one can not be mathematical. Who can say offhand just how much sleeve will balance a train or whether a shorter skirt will mean a large hat or small? The pose of the figure means so much to a gown that its balance can scarcely be visualized apart from the wearer. Does the lady stand chest forward and shoulders back?—the gown may be thus and so; does she relax the knee, droop the shoulders forward?—the gown will be different; does she use her arms freely? will she play with her fan and make it conspicuous? The cut of a gown would be a simple matter were it not for these considerations.

In the cutting of a gown, a sidewise twist of drapery or slanted pose of ornament will create a necessity for nice adjustments, Yet when such design is really good, it may lend beauty to a figure which is naturally awkward.

A woman of forty whose careless carriage had set her one hip higher than the other, her shoulders askew, and actually left one arm two inches longer than the other, found a heavy drapery over one arm, balanced by a band of fur and slim pointed train, a dream of rare delight. It not only hid her naturally awkward figure but ingeniously coaxed her to move gracefully.

Proportion or scale, is very nearly related in our minds to balance. We naturally expect certain things to be certain sizes or to have certain pro-portions when seen with other things. If a figure is large, we expect the hats, shoes, and ornaments to be large, otherwise they seem incongruous. If the figure is small, the opposite is true. This scale sense is so strong that we can not judge size accurately when the relationships are changed. Re-member how different Gulliver appeared to the Lilliputians and to the Brobdignagians. Fashion daily alters our scale sense in spite of any determination we may have to the contrary. A hat which last year seemed to fit the head perfectly may, this year, seem of niggard size or perhaps most un-wieldy. However, the woman who holds within her consciousness the ideal of natural beauty may better understand the caprices of fashion; and when she follows, it will not be as a slave, but as a comrade.

A woman with large feet and hands finds that very tight fitting shoes and slim skirts accent the size of foot and ankle, and that tight sleeves ending sharply at the wrist make her hands seem twice the size they should appear. She wears her shoes as large as possible to be well fitting, and sees to it that her skirts always drape loosely about her ankles, especially when she is seated. She likes flowing sleeves, but when tight ones seem obligatory, she finds that they can be fitted to appear tight, while in reality they are loose enough to drop over the hand and make is seem small and delicate.


The chief consideration of design is structure first to create and then to strengthen. Ornament serves the latter purpose only; if once it is used solely for itself, Art is dead. In making a vase the potter may choose to give strength and importance to its swelling curves; he will place his decoration there. If the lip of the vase seems too weak and frail, a mere line incised thereon may change the whole effect. The application to dress is almost too obvious. Should one desire to enlarge hips or bust, pose the decoration there. Should one wish to have height the important theme, let decoration show it. Decoration which reverses the structural "feeling" always has a weakening effect, such as upstanding frills on graceful dragging draperies or trailing plumes on stiff-brimmed hats.

A certain pretty girl could have ruined a 'fluffy-ruffles costume by wearing a long pointed sautoir, but she had the grace to choose a short triple strand of pearls and save the effect. She added round lines to a round frock.

Just as the ornament of a dress should relate to the structure of that dress, the dress itself should relate to the structure of the figure. Sleeves that take away the freedom of arms are poor design for any but the helpless parasite, while sleeves that bring out the structure and give play to the arm are themselves most beautiful. Any decoration that gives even a mere appearance of restriction to the figure is to the artist's mind an ugliness. Stiffened skirts and padded bodices may have a certain style value but they have not the beauty of naturalness.

Ornament has three general classes : units, borders, and allover patterns. A unit of design may be anything, a bird or beast or wave, a circle or a square. It may be any form, natural or geometric; but it must relate to the whole plan no matter how humble its place may be. Often single units are employed in the decoration of a frock, as in buckles or pendants; in other cases they are repeated to give rhythm to the idea. Borders and allovers are simply arrangements of units, and their beauty depends upon the pleasant relationship of the units to each other. Let us not forget that, like units of design, they are useless except to serve the purpose for which they were made—to bring out the structure of the gown.

Borders are, of course, lineal in character and must be close enough arrangements of units to actually carry lines. The units must fit so well together that there are no awkward gaps.

A row of round spots, posies they were, ornamenting a party frock had a strange lost look. When leaves and stems were used to connect them and adequately fill the black spaces between, the border became very beautiful and distinguished. It was, however, too heavy looking for the crêpe of the dress and a new border of half the size was de-signed to take its place. The heavy decoration found a happy home on a taffeta bedspread.

Allover patterns should have the units arranged in such a way that the surface is not only pleasant to look upon but remains a surface. Should the decoration alter the appearance of the surface till it seems to be a bunch of real roses, or a picture, or some other unsuitable thing, it would be ruined. A safe rule in which to put one's faith is that the more frequently a design is repeated, the more conventional its units must be. A naturalistic picture may be delightful if seen only once, but after two or three times it is tiresome, and when repeated twenty times it becomes unbearable ! A natural animal effect in a fur scarf may be quite piquant, but when a whole coat is made the furs are worked into more conventionalized forms.

A woman almost drove an artist wild by laying a heavy bag on a bunch of roses that were in her lap. When she picked up the bag and moved into a good light, it was evident that her dress material was heaped with embroidered roses to such an extent that it was indeterminable whether she herself was fat or thin, or whether there was any arrangement in her floral offering. She had sat upon some of the roses and crushed them horribly, and the seams of the frock had mangled others past hope. He felt as he expressed it, that it would be only just and right to hand her over to a murder jury.

Ornament may be made of any material ; for in-stance, embroidery, lace, beads, ribbons, fringe, buttons, printed and stenciled patterns, and, no less so, every fold of drapery.

A simple dress that had no shape at all when re-posing upon a coat hanger was exquisitely beautiful when worn, because its folds made so perfect a decoration. When the figure stood straight, the folds fell straight and harmonious. As the figure relaxed slightly, they drew toward the high hip and continued to fall straight on that side while the relaxed knee was beautifully outlined. No other ornament was necessary.

When an applied ornament has been used—say on one hip—the greatest care must be taken not to create a disharmony by posing the figure so that the folds will draw away from the ornament rather than towards it.

Crinkles, wrinkles, and creases all decorate the materials that they touch—and often disastrously. One sees occasionally a limp frill or drooping godet that has grown more artistic with age, but too many such accidents are far from being in harmony with the design of the whole costume and weaken the effectiveness of the gown.

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