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Fashion is a science. It is a collection of compounds; elements of design fused together to produce stitches of great beauty and power. Fashion is chemistry and designers are the chemists, ceaselessly experimenting with texture, form, and shape to create unique garments of immense significance. Although the table of stylistic elements is expansive, there is only one whose versatility keeps designers coming back for more: the element of shape.

In the early stages of my deep dive into shape’s influence on the industry, I found myself asking a very simple question: what is shape? A concept so simple, yet so complex. I needed to know more. Simply put, shape is the way in which a garment sits on the body. It is the way clothing either accentuates or masquerades the silhouette. A fierce Versace dress dripping in gold garnish may billow out at the waistline to accentuate and celebrate the female form, while a Prada men’s suit may flourish its shoulders with sharp right angles to pay homage to traditionally masculine features. However, shape is so much more than just lines and stitches. It takes the body’s blank canvas and injects symbolism and meaning. It tells a story.

Of course soft billows and cutting edges can tell a binary tale, but the careful fusion of both can create stunning masculine-meets-feminine ensembles that transcend the boundaries of traditional gender norms. Designer Christian Siriano frequents the intersection of gender and shape, which was on full display at the 2019 Oscars. Billy Porter, a high fashion favorite, took charge of the star-studded Red Carpet wearing an all black tuxedo gown designed by Siriano himself. The look featured a traditional tuxedo look from the waste up, characterized by stark shoulder pads, silk lapels, and a simple bow tie. The garment’s shape was rather form fitting with dramatic, straight edges, which evoked a sense of masculinity and solemnity. The bottom half, however, tells a completely different story. Porter’s look jolts its audience away from the strapping upper-half and seamlessly pulls us into an entirely new look, which trades in stark lines for soft billows. The tuxedo transforms into a voluminous gown just as it reaches Porter’s waistline. The full shape of the ball skirt emanates a soft feminine energy that, combined with the starkly contrasting top, took the internet by storm. Viewers could not get enough of Siriano’s beautiful experimentation with shape to fuse masculinity with femininity. The look made headlines and is another testimony to the power of shape to transform the look and meaning of high fashion looks.

While shape can celebrate the complexity and fluidity of gender, it can also highlight the societal struggles that lie within. The runway has seen so many designers manipulate shape in a way that is symbolic of political and social struggle, which is what makes this element so versatile. Let’s take Charlotte Knowles, for example. The mastermind behind KNWLS, a south London based brand, has perfected the art of translating societal frustration into artistic expression. Working alongside her design partner Alexandre Arsenault, Knowles’ Spring 2020 Ready-to-Wear collection featured an array of lingerie and shapewear. Clothing of this nature immediately conjures thoughts of soft, sensual femininity. Some may think of the subtle ferocity of Kim Kardashian’s Skims or the sensuality of a Victoria’s Secret set. However, the dynamic design duo had a different idea for how they wanted their collection to pan out. KNWLS traded in soft, lacey edges for a bandage-wrapped style flourished with sharp, cutting angles. The pair manipulated the shape of their garments to portray a sense of “militarized cortestry”, which is made evident by the intentional shaping decisions of each stitch. The duo later explained that their Spring 2020 collection was made as a “reaction to the current climate”. This comment is in reference to the struggles that women face in society, and the armor-like array of looks is a reference to “our women [is] fighting for her place in the world”. The KNWLS Spring 2020 collection used shape as a vessel to convey a message regarding the current state of our world and the people living in it.

Fashion is often referred to in the general. People take in the looks, extract meaning, draw their conclusions, and move on. However, when we take fashion in this big-picture way, we are completely overlooking the crucial building blocks that it took to create the look that we are seeing. Each individual element of fashion holds so much potential and meaning, and it is so important that we take the time to understand each and every one of them because fashion is a science, and it is time to start studying.

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