SURVEY: Checking in with how you think the #KnitPetiteProject is going! Are we addressing your questions?
October’s focus for the #KPP is shopping for petites. What to buy? Where to buy it? How and when to modify your current off-the-rack clothes?
Today we’re looking at a practical tool to help you navigate the myriad fashion styling advice you may encounter: the elements and principles of design.
Once you determine what you want to achieve with your fashion+styling, you can better sort through advice. And to be honest, my hope is that after this post, YOU will be the source of your own best advice!
The structure upon which I’d like to hang this post is the body-neutral territory of art aesthetics, achieved through the elements and principles of art.
Keeping it Neutral: Art
For this post, I want to introduce you to a few concepts within art and design that you can apply to (and likely find reflected in) lots of fashion styling advice. My interest in using this is that it provides a neutral ground on which to build your awareness of visual perception, as well as some oft-cited “objective truths”, and an understanding of your subjective taste and opinion.
Using this neutral territory will, I hope, help you to divorce entrenched ideas of what you’re supposed to want and get at the root of what your real, true, joyful goals are. Perhaps you agree with cultural standards and want that look. Perhaps you disagree and instead draw joy from clothing items and celebrating body shape that flies in the very face of what you’re supposed to want.
What this post will do is arm you with knowledge to better understand some aesthetic information that’s at the root of much conventional advice to petite folks.
I’d suggest you be critical of any advice and see if it is helpful or harmful to you. In regards to my ability to speak about art: it’s my career. I’m an arts educator in a museum, with a degree in Art History and over 10 years of experience teaching people about viewing, assessing, critiquing, and ultimately judging artwork.
In an attempt to be as transparent as possible, I have to reiterate that my values include self-expression, self-determination, body-positivity, and dressing for your joy instead of an oppressive cultural ideal which you may feel, be, or wish to be outside of.
One other point: I’m going to use the word “art” here to refer to visual art (as that’s my area of specialty), but of course there are many artforms!
Elements and Principles: The Basics of Art + the critical process
You might remember this from elementary school: the elements and principles of art (E+P). I’m going to give you the basics drawn from the provincial elementary curriculum of Ontario [PDF] (though you can certainly find sources elsewhere that have more/different lists).
Elements: think of these as the “ingredients” of an artwork
- shape and form
Principles: think of these as the “recipe”
- repetition and rhythm
- unity and harmony
In creating an artwork, the artist combines these E+P to create a whole that communicates to the viewer. People viewing an artwork tend to jump to immediately interpreting and judging the artwork as good or bad; this process is what our brains want us to do (that is, make sense of what you’re seeing as quickly as possible). But in the process of viewing and critiquing an artwork judgement is actually the last step.
Art Criticism: Steps
The art critical process is mentioned here because I want to highlight in particular the first 2 steps (and let you know it’s totally common to want to jump directly to the last two!)
In order to unravel some of the reasons an artwork appears as it does to you (and thus reveal something about yourself and how you take in and understand visual information), you should describe what you see using those E+P.
Let’s do that together. Look at this artwork below.
Thinking of the E+P, what do you notice? The colours? The movement? Look at the whole list of E+P and ask yourself how (if at all) those E+P appear in this painting.
Here’s an example of my quick description and analysis of balance in this painting:
Tall dark tree in foreground (colour, proportion) + bright, round, eye-catching moon (colour, contrast, shape) = creates balance on each side of the canvas; bright, warm colours stand out and you thus need less of them to get the viewer’s visual attention as, say, a darker cool colour (the greenish, brownish, blueish tree).
FYI: Next in the critical process, you’d interpret what you see (that is, what does it mean?) Let me tell you, this is what people ask me the most about artwork, and it’s our brains wanting to sort visual information as efficiently as possible. We know a human made this; but why? What does it mean? And finally in the art criticism process is judgement: is the artwork successful?
Maybe you’re familiar with this artwork, and that familiarity and the ideas, thoughts, and feelings associated with it are acting on you. Maybe you had to really work to just notice the E+P, and set aside your judgement and interpretation of the work. And that’s what I’m hoping to highlight: a recognition of the power of visual imagery, our tendency to and to sort it as quickly as possible, and how your presumptions/prejudgements affect your actual process of seeing and understanding.
You can think about this in a similar vein to fashion. You are the artist, creating an artwork. What is your end goal? How can you use the E+P to get there?
The Elements and Principles in Fashion
That list of E+P may contain words you’re familiar with in relation to fashion styling advice. Particularly for petite women, advice tends to lean heavily on creating a “flattering” proportion. But, what is flattering? Whose definition are we adhering to?
Generally, advice is making presumptions about what you want based on a bit of self-sorting (reading an article with the intended audience of petite women, “5 Styling Tips for Petite Fashionistas!”). There are plenty of problems with this; one major one I’d like to point out is that while their advice may be based on the E+P and thus have a “truth” to it, it is true within the constraints of a presumption of your desired outcome, a flattening+broadening of the many visual aspects of your appearance (eg: skin tone, body structure, age), and a moral code which may be in contrast to your own.
Unsurprisingly, a lot of advice is written from the standpoint of presuming you want to adhere to the dominant culture’s ideals of beauty. In some cases, that will align with your own goals. In others, it may not. For example, an article titled “5 Styling Tips for Petite Fashionistas!” may state that you should NEVER wear large prints. This may come from an analysis of the E+P that say a large print will unbalance your small body, and create a proportion that visually emphasizes the print/piece of clothing and makes you look smaller and an afterthought to your outfit, rather than in harmony with your outfit.
What if you love that print? What if you don’t care about looking smaller? What if you feel that this article assumes you’re a thin petite women, and you feel that doesn’t represent your own body?
Let’s take another look at the E+P:
- line (this can be the lines in a pattern on your clothes, the line created by where your top ends, the lines/edges of your neckline…)
- shape and form (this can be the silhouette created with your clothes)
- space (depth can be created or reduced in actual layering of clothes and accessories, certain shapes can create more space around your body)
- colour (solid! print! ombre! varigated! dark! light! bright! dull!)
- texture (both real, as in corduroy and silk, or depicted, as a furry-looking animal print)
- value (darkness or brightness in your colours)
Principles: think of these as the “recipe”
- contrast (remember, you can combine the elements to create contrast ie: a white silky top and dark denim jeans use texture+colour to create contrast)
- repetition and rhythm (prints, shapes of items of clothing and accessories)
- variety (think of a shiny black boot with a woolly knit sweater and smooth tights – a variety of textures!)
- emphasis (imagine a skin tight dress that’s all black except for a neon pink 3″ belt at the waist: the bright colour of the pink emphasizes wherever it’s situated)
- proportion (in fashion this is the proportions of your own body as related to a cultural ideal so, imagine a pair of pants that go right up under your bust in relation to your torso from the top of the pants to your shoulders)
- balance (top heavy? bottom heavy? these are common terms in relation to women’s body shapes, which can also apply to the clothing we choose to put on our body to balance/imbalance)
- unity and harmony (perhaps the colour of your dress matches/harmonizes with the colour of your shoes)
- movement (clothing will actually move/not move with you. Imagine a billowy maxi skirt or tight slacks)
In creating an artwork, the artist combines the E+P to create a whole. In creating your outfit, you also combine the E+P to create a whole. The question is, what’s YOUR end goal? Fashion styling advice works if you agree with its end goal.
The questions you can ask yourself:
- what’s my end goal?
- what will being me joy?
- what do I want to highlight?
You control The Elements and Principles
Fortunately, YOU can take control of the E+P and make them work toward your ends. You can dissect the advice that styling articles give, see their end goals and motivation, and find out for yourself if you agree or disagree.
As I think you can appreciate, it’s difficult to fit in a thorough explanation of how all the E+P work in one blog post! So instead what I’ll do is give a couple of examples I’ve seen commonly cited among styling advice for petite women.
The most common thing that advice presumes you want to “correct” is your short (and usually they also presume narrow) stature. One of the E+P you’ll see often cited in relation to this is proportion. Advice like “wear one colour head-to-toe and it will elongate you”, or “don’t wear oversized clothes, they’ll make you look like a kid playing dress up!”. This advice is rooted in ideas about proportion.
Looking at those Elements (the “ingredients” for our artwork/outfit), you’ll see colour and shape. This idea of one colour head-to-toe elongating you is not incorrect! At least, not necessarily. Visual perception and expression is ultimately subjective: you can’t assume that everyone will have the same impression of you from your clothing! But in some cases you can make an educated guess based on what we know of how humans take in visual information.
So, do you agree? Do you want to look elongated (or at the very least, avoid wearing something that shrinks your height?) If so, then this advice might be for you, with the caveat that you should be aware of all the other E+P in conjunction with all the variables of your shapes and end goals.
There’s also the very tricky point of shape. I think we’re all very well aware of the ideal shape(s) of a woman in this culture. Perhaps even more so, we’re aware of what we should avoid AT ALL COSTS!
While this isn’t necessarily just a petite woman issue, I want to talk a bit about the shape info because it’s super common and is very much guilty of presuming you want to look thin, with big (but not TOO big) breasts and an acceptable height (which is certainly not petite, and certainly not tall either!)
There’s plenty of sources out there I could point to, but let’s look at this one from earlier this year. They list the trends petite women should avoid and give NO information as to why they’re giving that advice. One of my favourites is #4, where is simply says “Shirtdresses. Comfortable? Yes. Flattering? Not so much.” Where is this coming from!? I must say I totally disagree. I see no notes about shape, balance, proportion, nothing.
Another funny slide is #6, where it warns petite women away from boxy tops. This is an excellent example of how subjective styling advice and preferences are. I’ve seen plenty of petite women who were thin and petite women who were heavier with oversized tops and I those folks looked chic! And while this advice does NOT explain itself, I’m going to assume they’re giving it in regards to ideas around shape (boxy = unfeminine), proportion (boxy = oversized = “overwhelms” a small figure), balance (top heavy = not balanced, women should be equally balanced into a figure that adheres to the cultural standard of beauty).
And because I think picking apart this article is just too easy, this one is the last: slide #10 warns petite women away from bermuda shorts because the length is awkward. As we all know from the #KnitPetiteProject, a woman can be shorter than 5’4″ but also be short waisted and have long legs. Take all advice with your critical thinking cap on!
Why those conventional advice folks say what they do and why you should listen to them
This advice can work if you agree with the end goal and are critical of your application of it because they’re basing their advice on the assumed value and current cultural definition of female beauty as well as a generally accepted understanding of the way the E+P of art exert influence on our visual perception of the world.
So, what I propose is this: I think a lot of this advice is written backwards. I think it’s feeding us, as petite women, what the cultural value of our shapes are and what we should be. Instead of a headline like “5 styling tips for petite fashionistas!” it should be “5 styling tips to draw attention to your face!” or, “5 styling tips to look broader!”.
Some Light Reading
I want to leave you with a bit of positivity with this list of Body Positive Bloggers. Fashion isn’t evil, and we aren’t terrible for drawing power, strength, pleasure, and personal expression from it. What I would love for us all is to define our own end goals and construct a body-positive path toward achieving them.
Want to talk fashion and the E+P? I’d love to! Come on over to the Ravelry Group here.
What’s your favourite fashion styling tip for YOU?
- Ontario Curriculum: Grades 1 – 8 The Arts [PDF]. 2009. Accessed October 14, 2017.