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Elements of Style How Science Informs Fashion Design

Nowadays people judge fashion in a very superficial way by saying things like “I know it when I see it.” However, these kinds of responses don‟t imply any objective opinion. In a recent interview, Project Runway‟s Tim Gunn even claims that people should avoid consciously analyzing fashion, and he explained how to judge a design, or what are the reasons that make people like a design by saying “ It‟s largely visceral, to be perfectly honest. If my brain tells me that a new design should resonate with me, but I‟m unmoved, then I always go with my gut. I was talking to faculty members at the Parsons School for Design, where I taught for 24 years. They were telling me about how they initially evaluate a new object. They come upon it not really looking at it. They see it in the periphery of their vision and then they look at it for a split second and close their eyes. It‟s that moment of reckoning that tells them the value of the object.

Guun explained how the eyes and brain react towards a design. Tim‟s response suggests that categorizing a look as “good fashion” results from snap judgments about its visual elements. But what drives this gut feeling about good design? On Project Runway, the judges often critique the perceptual elements of a look, saying things like, “it‟s too busy,” “it‟s not cohesive,” or, “I HATE that color!” So are there objective, perceptual rules that good fashion adheres to? Or do you have to be a fashion expert to “know it when you see it?” Here‟s one illusion that could speak to this issue: which inner square is smaller?

Most people would think that the black square is smaller; however, both squares have the exact same size. This illusion could explain why we think black is more flattering than white; black shapes appear thinner than white shapes, possibly because the contours of black objects have more definition.

This illusion suggests that color is one element that can influence fashion judgements. Although color trends come and go, red and black are two hues that may stand the test of time in fashion. Gunn talked about how men and women both prefer red on the opposite sex (Eliot, 2008; Eliot, 2010). Referees also awarded red-clothed Tae Kwon Do competitors more points than when the same competitors wore blue, possibly because red might be easier for referees to see (Strauss et al., 2008). However, not all color biases are positive; referees also gave out more penalties to football and hockey teams wearing black, perhaps because people associate „blackâ€&#x; with hostility (Frank & Gilovich, 1988). This all suggests that color not only influences whether we like what others wear, but also how we perceive performance and character traits. But how do people judge colors in the absence of context (such as attraction or competition)? Do colors change the way we feel (i.e., more confident wearing red or more aggressive wearing black), leading to positive or negative judgments?

Designers also commonly use illusions to “trick the eye” into perceiving a more flattering silhouette, such as highlighting the waist with a belt to draw attention to the narrowest part of the body. Another trick is to wear V-neck tops, which gives the illusion of a longer torso. Don‟t believe me? Check out the following image; which line segment is longer?

The lines are actually identical (really!), but the line segment on the right looks longer because of the V-shaped extensions on either side. You can achieve the exact same effect just by wearing a Vneck shirt or dress (and, theoretically, bell-bottom pants or mermaid skirts). So why does a longer torso matter?

As it turns out, elongating the body makes you look thinner. When people were shown pairs of bodies that differed only in height, participants thought that the taller body looked thinner over 80% of the time, despite the fact that they were the same width (Savazzi et al., 2010). Thus, fashion experts could be basing their judgments on basic perceptual elements like color and height. If perceptual elements influence fashion judgments, we can pinpoint why a look appears unflattering, too busy, incohesive, etc. Ultimately, judging fashion may be less an art than a science.