How to Design a Dress: A Fashion Designer’s Guide
Dresses. From the togas of Ancient Greece to the corseted frocks of the Victorian era to today’s endless variety of silhouettes, the dress has long been an iconic piece of personal style and our shared sartorial heritage.
With dozens of styles from couture to ready-to-wear, from sporty T-shirt dresses to trendy party wear, there are so many directions a dress can take. And as an emerging fashion designer, it all might seem a bit overwhelming. Fortunately, we’re here to help. Consider this your ultimate guide to designing a dress that expresses your vision and makes it a reality.
A Glossary of Dress Design
Like learning how to walk before you run, understanding some of the most common dress styles can help you design your own clothes. When creating your dress (or line of dresses), it’s important to understand the different types of dresses as well as the materials used to create them.
Knowing the names and references to different dress styles can provide direction in creating a clothing line that reflects your vision. Likewise, an understanding of fabrics can help give your dress concepts shape, structure, and aesthetic consistency. Here’s a quick primer on some popular dress designs and fabrications.
- A-Line Dress: The classic way to achieve a feminine shape, an A-line dress cinches at the natural waist and is structured outward, making an A-shape from the waist to the knees.
- Maxi Dress: These flowing long dresses reach all the way to (or below) the wearer’s ankles. Maxi dresses can be formal or casual.
- Peplum Dress: Fun but still professional, a peplum dress is essentially a sheath dress with a ruffle of fabric coming out from the waist, hips, or neckline.
- Sheath Dress: This classic silhouette is form-fitting and flattering, often tapered at the waist with no visible seam. It can have long sleeves, short sleeves, cap sleeves, or be sleeveless, but it usually has a modest neckline.
- Shift Dress: These dresses run straight downward from the shoulders to the hips, creating a rectangular shape. Shift dresses were a fashion staple of the 1960s.
- Skater Dress: Originally inspired by figure skaters, skater dresses are a casual style of A-line dress with a flouncy skirt.
- T-Shirt Dress: This is exactly what it sounds like — an elongated T-shirt designed to be a dress.
- Wrap Dress: As the name suggests, this dress design features a front closure by wrapping around the body from one side to the other. This style creates a V-neck and emphasizes a feminine hourglass figure by cinching in the waist.
Popular Dress Fabrics
- Chiffon: Magical and gauzy, chiffon is a transparent, flowing fabric often used in evening dresses, wedding dresses, and formal gowns.
- Crepe: Usually made out of wool, silk, and even synthetic fibers, crepe is a fabric with a distinctive crinkled texture. Often used in evening dresses and formal wear, its traditional origin was in black dresses for mourning attire.
- Linen: This lightweight, breathable, natural fiber is woven from flax. It’s a popular choice for summer dresses.
- Silk: A natural fiber made from the cocoons of mulberry silkworms, silk is a soft yet resilient fabric that began in Ancient China. It has a distinctive sheen and is used in a variety of dress styles. The synthetic and less expensive alternative to silk is satin.
Getting Started: How to Design a Dress
Now that we’ve covered some basic vocabulary, it’s time to begin crafting your fashion designs. To actually design a dress, you’ll need to focus on creative direction, sketching your designs, sourcing fabrics, making patterns (or finding a pattern maker), pattern grading if you’ll be creating dress designs in multiple sizes, and producing sample clothing. As a dressmaker, all of these steps are essential in the creation, customization, and production of your dress designs.
To create your perfect dress collection, begin with the creative direction and mood. To do this, imagine who will wear your designs. This is your target customer.
Aside from how these women dress, what are their interests? Are they business professionals looking for office-appropriate attire? Sporty and active individuals who prioritize comfort? Or are they mostly interested in the latest fashion trends?
An important part of the creative process is mood boards. While you could create a physical mood board with a variety of items — everything from pages torn out of a magazine to fabric swatches and inspiring photographs — you can also create them with free online tools like Pinterest, Canva, or Milanote. Mood boards help refine your ideas and guide you in the style, color palette, and silhouettes for your dress designs.
During this phase of the dress design process, think about the colors, shapes, and textiles you want to use. Consider how you want the material to flow (or cling) to the wearer as well as the body shape of your customer.
You can use a number of tools to create your fashion design sketches. The traditional route is pencil and paper, paints, markers, or colored pencils, but you can also use computer programs like Adobe Illustrator to make drawings. If you enjoy using an iPad, the Procreate app and Apple Pencil are the preferred tools of many fashion designers when creating sketches. Pull from your mood boards for inspiration and let your mind go wild with possibilities.
Textiles are one of the most important elements of the dress design process. Color, texture, and structure all play a huge role in the look and feel of your dresses, and fabric choices contribute to all of these elements.
Color communicates the mood of your fashion collection. For example, navy blue is a neutral that can anchor a look while bright red makes a bold statement. Look through your local fabric stores and craft stores to find swatches that match your dress design concept.
Budget will play a big role in your textile selection process for your dress design. If you’re designing one-of-a-kind haute couture dresses, you’ll need to budget for finer fabrics like silk, tulle, chiffon, or lace. On the other hand, if you’re creating casual dress designs, you’ll likely need lightweight fabrics.
If you’re planning on large-scale production of your designs for ready-to-wear or retail, you may need to consider less expensive fabrics that you can purchase in large quantities.
Again, reference your target customer. They will inform everything from fabric choice to budget to color palette.
At this point in the creative process, you’ll work with a pattern maker to create patterns for your dress designs. Patterns are the template, or outline, of the different pieces of fabric that will be cut and sewn together to form your garment. Consider the pattern as the guide for your seamstress and the foundation of your design.
Depending on your dress designs, you will need to take the textiles you sourced and drape them with your pattern maker so they can understand the structure and tailoring you want to achieve. This will help them make patterns that can be reproduced to look identical to your concept. TEG offers comprehensive pattern making services for both emerging and established fashion designers.
Depending on the concept of your dress collection, you’ll want to grade the patterns with your pattern maker. Pattern grading is the process of producing a variety of sizes for a single design.
Once your patterns are perfected, you can pass them along to your sample maker to finally make your dress designs a reality. These preliminary mock-ups will go through a series of revisions until they’re as perfect as possible.
Once you have your sample clothing, you can present them to potential retailers if you plan to sell the dresses in a store or online. You can also put your dresses on models for a show or editorial shoot of your new dress designs.
Your Guide to Perfect Dress Design
Once you begin following these steps, you’re on your way to becoming a confident and accomplished dressmaker. Whether you’re designing T-shirt dresses or couture custom dresses, taking a methodical approach will help ensure you create the designs of your dreams.
Designing your own clothes can be challenging, and learning how to design a dress is no exception. Having an excellent team at your side can help every step of the way to bring your creative vision to life.
At TEG, our expertise provides high-quality creative services like fabric and trim sourcing that you won’t find elsewhere. Our top-of-the-line sourcing managers skillfully guide you through sampling fabric swatches, negotiating minimums and prices, tracking orders, and more.
Whether you’re an emerging or established designer, we’ve helped over 2,000 designers during the last 15+ years bring their visions to life. We’d love to help you, too!
For all inquiries and questions, please call or fill out the below form. We will respond within 1-2 business days. Thank you!
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