A Proposed Definition for Fashion Design

By Jonathan De Klerk and Simoné Prinsloo, lecturers and module coordinators at Stadio School of Fashion.


  • Fashion

  • Design

  • Fashion design

  • Define

The fashion industry is multifaceted and can be considered as an umbrella term constituting various homonyms that construct the industry. These include but are not limited to retail, media, history, commerce, art, and design. Each aspect plays an integral role in creating this global industry, from ideation and product development to retail and the consumer. However, this article questions the set definitions that construct this particular industry. To propose a set definition of fashion design, isolating and defining the two terms independently is needed. In this article, the authors propose a set definition of fashion design, guided by academic evidence.


Fashion as a concept to be defined is entangled with an endless array of meaning dependent on the origin of viewpoint. Due to fashion being multifaceted, it can be seen and defined through multiple perspectives, which include sociological, cultural, and psychological vantage points (Hopkins, 2012:10). Therefore, defining fashion becomes the arduous task of detangling these perspectives (Craik, 2009; Hopkins, 2012).

Craik (2009: 2) defines fashion as a sense of dress or style that defines the desired mode of behaviour or appearance, subject to successive change and momentum. Similarly, Hopkins (2012: 11-12) describes fashion as the creation of a sense of identity through clothing. Therefore, fashion can be considered through a social and psychological perspective, according to individual self-perception (Hopkins, 2012: 12). In fact, these perspectives derive from two of the three principles of apparel as devised by James Laver (1969: 273).

Laver (1969: 273) argued that apparel is fundamentally influenced by three principles; namely the utility principle, the seduction principle, and the hierarchical principle. The utility principle refers to the act of wearing clothes for protection and comfort (Laver, 1969: 273). The seduction principle expands beyond that and refers to the act of wearing clothes to attract a sexual partner (Laver, 1969: 273). Lastly, the hierarchical principle refers to the act of wearing clothes to inform status or hierarchy (Laver, 1969: 273).

Laver (1969: 273) refers to the act of wearing clothes in his descriptions of the three principles; however, fashion is distinctive from clothing due to the social, cultural, and psychological notions attached to it. By understanding Craik's (2009) and Hopkins' (2012) definitions of fashion in relation to the seduction and hierarchical principles, fashion can be seen as the way people dress, influenced by successive change and identity, allowing for non-verbal communication.


Design, however, can be defined as the process that involves both thought and action, which proposes that design has both a noun and a verb meaning. However, thought and action can define a multitude of praxis' resulting in confusion around a set definition of design (Harvey, 2018; Ralph & Wand, 2009). Ralph and Wand (2009: 103-104) subsequently formulated a proposal for a formal definition of design by positioning the term around convergent and divergent thinking, seeing design as an independent entity while simultaneously isolating the components within design.

Design can ultimately be defined as "a specification of an object, manifested by an agent, intended to accomplish goals, in a particular environment, using a set of primitive components, satisfying a set of requirements, subject to constraints" (Ralph & Wand, 2009: 108).

Figure 1: A diagram interpreting a conceptual model of design (Ralph & Wand, 2009:108).

Considering the conceptual model of design (refer to Figure 1), the definition of design has various components. In order to understand the definition, it is necessary to understand the components that embody it. The subject of design is referred to as the agent that creates or designs the object (the designer), where the object is the thing that is being designed (Ralph & Wand, 2009: 105-106). Primitive[1] components refer to the elements that the object is composed of since the design object cannot be created from nothing (Ralph & Wand, 2009: 105-106). Ralph and Wand (2009: 105-106) assert that the agent designs with specific properties in mind, which is referred to as the specification, or rather, how the design will function. The goal component is inherent, as the agent is designing the object with intent; thus, the goal of the object is intentional and not accidental (Ralph & Wand, 2009: 105-106). The environment component of the definition refers to the space in which the object operates, which therefore aligns with the intentionality of the agent and the object's goals (Ralph & Wand, 2009: 105-106). The requirements component refers to the properties the object possesses in order to operate. Similarly, the object must involve constraints that include an environment or a factor that will constrain the object from operating (Ralph & Wand, 2009: 105-106).

Fashion Design

By isolating and understanding both the definitions of fashion and design, we can formulate a definition of what fashion design is by providing academic evidence. Since fashion design derives from design, fashion design can be guided by the same general definition of design. Accordingly, fashion is the process where a designer (agent) creates a manner of dress (object) composed of specific materials (primitives), subjected to and influenced by change (environment and constraints), as well as satisfies the need for identity (requirements) to accomplish non-verbal communication such as protection, seduction or status (goal) (Craik, 2009; Hopkins, 2012; Ralph & Wand, 2009; Laver, 1969: 273).


Defining fashion design stems from two points; defining fashion and then defining design. As the fashion industry is multifaceted, defining the term fashion design broadly becomes important as there are many other aspects that construct the industry. In this article, the authors touch on the heterogeneous definition of fashion that leads to the defining of design, thus creating an understanding of what fashion design is. It should be noted that the definition of what fashion design is and what fashion design does are two different schools of thought.

[1] Design primitives refer to fonts, spacings, colours, as well as other building blocks.

Reference List

Craik, J. 2009. Fashion: The key concepts. Oxford: Berg.

Harvey, R.N. 2018. A human-centered design approach to fashion design education (Doctoral Thesis). Johannesburg: University of Johannesburg. [O]. Available: hppt:// [Accessed: 20 December 2020].

Hopkins, J. 2012. Fashion design: The complete guide. Switzerland: AVA Publishing.

Laver, J. 1969. The concise history of costume and fashion. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Incorporated.

Ralph, P., & Wand, Y. 2009. A proposal for a formal definition of the design concept, in Design requirements engineering: A ten-year perspective, edited by K Lyytinen, P Loucopoulos, J Mylopoulos, & B Robinson. Cleveland: Springer:103-126.